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‘Bad Boys for Life’ Has a Heart, and It’s Martin Lawrence

The third movie in the franchise borrows a lot from the previous two installments, but it manages to inject something new in the form of tender moments

Scott Laven/Sony Pictures
Spoiler warning

Martin Lawrence is the biggest surprise of Bad Boys for Life, a movie that isn’t all that surprising.

It goes without saying that a sequel to a 20-year-old movie franchise is also a giant branding opportunity, which is why the fourth Die Hard had to be called Live Free or Die Hard (and capitalize on public concern over the post-9/11 security state) and why you can’t just call it Bad Boys 3. If I had to put a finger on it, Bad Boys for Life felt most like a lob to the yet-to-be-named fourth film (which has already been green-lit) during [check notes] a callback to Bad Boys II.

Obviously, a lot of time has passed. It’s the wedding of Marcus Burnett’s (Martin Lawrence’s) daughter Megan and Reggie, the spindly, 40-in-the-face teenager that Marcus and Mike Lowery (Will Smith) attempted to rattle in the second film with a limp Scared Straight routine that involved a half-sung Ludacris song. Reggie’s a Marine now, and Megan is expecting. Mike raises a glass and jams the billboard slogan in there for the first of countless mentions over the film’s 124-minute running time: “We ride together, we die together, bad boys for life.” The entire reception joined in, and I checked the time. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s Bad Boys for Life is a pretty bad movie, in the general, total, complete sense, if I can be straight with you. It was too long, everything in it was lifted from an earlier Michael Bay film, including a cameo from Bay himself, and to achieve one of a billion conventional climaxes, Mike—who’d just survived a botched hit—stands up from a wheelchair to give his toast. It’s in keeping with the kind of cheap emotional catharsis this series prefers, though, and also, that’s just action-trilogy stuff. You can expect to retread old themes, be visited by old faces, and groan at how convenient plot developments are.

For Life does have a few surprises, however. Critics have spotted the silver lining in Smith’s performance, which is startlingly self-aware at times, like when he begs Marcus to unretire so the two can hunt down Mike’s would-be killer, Miami PD style. (He’s also facing off against his younger self again, just like in Gemini Man.) It’s a scene that could just as easily be about the making of the movie: He pleads with Marcus (read: Martin Lawrence) to forget years of his playing the flashy, selfish, hot-headed dumbass to partner up one last time. When you see the hurt play across Lawrence’s face as Marcus rejects Mike (read: Will Smith), you could cry, but then you were supposed to.

I did cry—???!—during the hospital chapel scene. I’ll explain, but it requires you to know some of the plot, and a little about the first two movies. As it turns out, Mike Lowery, terminally smooth, bulletproof hero cop, got his whole swag from the wife of a Mexican drug lord, who also happens to be a witch for some reason. The two had a son who rides a ninja bike and expresses his abandonment issues by knocking off public servants who make it into the newspaper. He takes a shot at Mike, and with his friend’s life hanging by a thread, Marcus, well past the age when he can hit the streets and bust some heads about it, does the only thing he can do, which is to pray.

It’s a simple, earnest prayer, and the shot is beautiful—the lighting in the chapel is soft, highlighting Lawrence’s eyes, wide and glassy with desperation. He stumbles at first. He apologizes for having not been to church since Easter, when he sort of zoned out on the actual sermon, then his voice cracks as he haggles with God for Mike’s remaining years, which Mike could maybe spend with a wife and kids. I am genuinely embarrassed about how moved I was by it. Especially since it happened so early in the movie.

In my defense, this isn’t how Bad Boys tends to work through its feelings. Bad Boys II actually detailed how Bad Boys deals with its feelings: put them in a box, along with the word “flaccid,” and throw that motherfucker in the ocean. In the first film, Mike processes the news of his ex-girlfriend Max being gunned down by French mobsters with a deep sigh and a long drive in his late-model Porsche. In the second, when Marcus gets a hostage call from his sister Gabrielle Union, he slams the flip phone shut, declares “shit just got real,” and storms off to raze Cuba to the ground with Henry Rollins’s tac team. (Seriously, please look at this logo.)

Henry Rollins in ‘Bad Boys II’
Columbia Pictures

In Bad Boys for Life, the gang goes to Mexico for an extrajudicial killing, but not before Smith gives a tearful monologue that lays out, finally, in the third act, what everybody has been so worked up about the whole time. This drug lord’s widow taught him how to be Mike Lowery, then he ghosted her, and so she sicced his own son on him. It works in lieu of Christoph Waltz emerging from the shadows in a nehru suit to announce that he was the author of all of Mike’s pain, but only because Martin Lawrence is perfect, again.

“... Mike, you fucked a married witch?”