Bad Boys is back and better than ever. That’s because Michael Bay is no longer directing, which means Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s detectives can finally do more than blow shit up. Newcomers Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi have given the duo relatable character traits, an aspect that’s been missing in the series, but their outing has horsepower to spare too.

The directors step on the gas early and often in fact. A Porsche is skirting around a corner in slow motion. Palm trees reflect off the hood of a car. This kind of imagery reflects the vibe of the series — cool, slick and not much else — but that all changes once we get a look inside the tinted windows. Marcus (Lawrence) is screaming over the revving engine. “Mike, what the hell are you doing!” he yells at his partner (Smith). It’s the first time one of these protagonists has expressed fear in the face of death, and it’s a nice change of pace.

It’s been 17 years since Mike and Marcus were brazenly shooting bad guys in Bad Boys 2. Now, the two are middle-aged men with responsibilities. Marcus, for instance, has just become a grandfather. He wants to retire —and spend his days watching Netflix — while Mike prefers to live it up as a Don Johnson-like celeb in Miami. After some bickering, a few shots fired and cliches like “this time it’s personal,” the two team up “one last time.”

Smith spent two years brainstorming the plot, and that dedication and love for the characters is palpable in every frame. It can’t be easy following up two pop culture smashes (the first two films combined to make $271 million at the box office), even though the movies themselves were a rainbow concoction of explosive absurdities and slapdash vulgarities. All of that can be found here too. What’s new are the emotional stakes. If Mike and Marcus die, they are leaving their loved ones behind.

And the threat of dying has never been more apparent. When a Mexican cartel starts shooting up the Miami Strip, led by a couple of bad esses (Kate del Castillio is the ringleader, Jacob Sciopo is the sharpshooting assassin), the bad boys have to put themselves in the line of fire. Robrecht Heyveart’s cinematography brings coherence to the action, with long-take shots versus Bay’s rapid-fire cuts. The change names the action sequences far more involving than in past installments.

One memorable scene sees Mike jumping from a speeding semi truck onto a moving helicopter as a rocket launcher connects with the cars behind him. Another explosive moment comes later in the run time — an army of cartel baddies get picked off in a Mexican standoff for the ages.

But it’s chemistry not action that fuels Bad Boys For Life. Smith gives it his all, and then some. He’s incredibly funny, even stirring, as his character learns the importance of friendship in a very real way this time. Lawrence, who famously did outlandish characters on Martin in the ’90s, is having a blast playing one here. His couch potato persona is the best part of the movie. By contrast, Mike takes getting older personally. He can’t come to terms with the young bucks calling him old at work, and Miami’s night club hues taunt him at every turn. It’s through his macho insecurities that the character is relatable, and Smith has the chops to make him real.

It would have been nice to see the filmmakers explore toxic masculinity more than just hinting at it, but by the end, the film has a few bigger problems. The twist in the third act is simply ludicrous. Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliono) barking orders isn’t amusing this time around, either. And then there’s the product placement. For every dead body there’s a shameless advertisement. Porsche, Nissan, Microsoft, Apple, Heineken, Amazon, Adidas, DJ Khaled… total overkill. Still, this is a big popcorn movie so some of the missteps are to be expected. Bad Boys is a blockbuster release in January after all. Whatcha gonna do?


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