In Series Breakdowns, we take a look at series of movies, novels, and television shows to track how well (or badly) they’ve progressed as subsequent editions have been produced. Every series we review has personal meaning to the writer, and our analyses will be summations of how we feel about the series, rather than a review of its merits. You may feel completely different than we do. If so, please don’t take offense. We are not professional critics, and have no training as such. These are just our thoughts poured out on paper.
The Bad Boys franchise started with a bang, but ultimately reminded us why bigger and louder is not necessarily better.
Bad Boys ranks just below Lethal Weapon and barely above 48 Hours in my pantheon of top buddy cop movies of all time. The plot is simple, because there’s no point in complicating a simple formula that always works when it’s well executed. Two cops that are best friends, yet kinda can’t stand each other, pursue an evil foreign drug dealer through an obstacle course of high-speed chases, hot chicks, and shootouts until a whole bunch of bodies hit the floor at the end.
What makes it so much better than run-of-the-mill cops-and-crooks films is that the action is not the centerpiece. Like all great movies, this one focuses on character.
Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett are the most hilarious partner tandem in buddy cop movie history. Riggs and Murtagh, Cates and Hammond, and Walsh and Mardukas (I know Mardukas wasn’t a cop, whatever) don’t come close to the onscreen chemistry of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back in 1995. The authenticity of their friendship is the beacon that grounds us within this movie, and prevents it from bleeding too far into seriousness (The Rookie) or absurdity (Cop Out).
The if-I-didn’t-love-him-so-much-I’d-hate-him dynamic has never been done better. No matter how heated their arguments get, they never dwell too far from the hysterical. From the opening carjacking scene to their tussle in the kiddie pool, you know that these two will always have each other’s backs. After all, if they didn’t have each other’s backs, they wouldn’t be in a buddy cop movie.
The action is superb; violent and crazy, yet never too over-the-top for a genre that brought us feats of ridiculousness such as Tango & Cash. This is what happens when the lunacy of Michael Bay meets the restrictions of a first-time director’s budget.
The Club Hell chase scene is completely nuts, but the relentless one-liners Mike and Marcus sling at each other throughout prevent us from dwelling on the implausibility because we’re too busy laughing. The airport scene gives us a dose of gravity befitting an action movie climax, but the quips and slow-motion stunts keep it just light enough to stay in its lane. Bad Boys always knows exactly what kind of movie it’s supposed to be.
Bad Boys was a hit, which was fortunate for those who made the film, but unfortunate for those of us that craved a sequel that might give us more of the same. After Bad Boys, music video veteran Bay would go on to do the action thing correctly one more time with The Rock. However, that success begat Armageddon, a title that proved to be quite prophetic regarding Bay’s future plans for the action genre.
Bad Boys II
Eight years later, Mike and Marcus were back at it again. And while their faces were familiar, their relationship and job description nosedived into the whacky.
The success that followed Armageddon transformed Michael Bay from skilled Tony Scott contemporary into psychotic Vince McMahon disciple. The focus of the series went from best friends sparring with each other while fighting off the villains to two dudes blowing shit up. The plot and sets got bigger, the action scenes got crazier, and the tenor of the friendship between Mike and Marcus got lamer.
Will Smith’s ascendance from TV actor that was just happy to have a role in an action movie to bankable movie star was the worst thing to happen to the Bad Boys franchise. Blockbuster turns throughout the late 90s put Smith in a position where he could no longer co-helm an action role (although I’d argue that is exactly what he did in Independence Day, Men in Black, and Wild Wild West). His status thrust him into the forefront as the action hero, with Lawrence downgraded to a scared, therapy junkie that can no longer put up with the machismo that oozes from his partner’s fabulously-dressed pores.
Since the first movie, these two vice detectives were apparently reassigned as foot soldiers on some twisted SWAT/green beret hybrid team whose tactics would have been deemed wildly excessive even back in the Scarface-era Miami of the 1980s. In less than a decade, Mike Lowrey somehow went from “rich kid … playin’ cop” to trigger-happy psychopath that packs an assault rifle in the back of his Ferrari.
Where the action of Bad Boys serves the humor and plot of the story, Bad Boys II flips that equation on its ear, much to the film’s detriment. This flick is an endless shootout/car chase that occasionally breaks out into weak plot sequences for a couple minutes. I don’t have a fundamental problem with movies like that, but Bad Boys deserved a sequel that was more true to its sensibilities than some two-hour car crash ending with our heroes legitimately invading Cuba!
Even the humor is mostly shoehorned into the story, feeling more like SNL sketches taped into the script rather than the organic manifestations of an authentic relationship between two buddies who have spent way too much time together. We see the accidentally homoerotic electronics store conversation and Marcus’ ecstasy-fueled antics at the captain’s house coming a mile away. Martin Lawrence has to work his bullet-ridden ass off to make them work even a little bit.
The one exception to this, perhaps the one saving grace that keeps Bad Boys II out of the trash heap, is the Reggie scene, which may honestly be the funniest three minutes of any movie of the 2000s.
Bad Boys for Life
When your movie is so goofy and over-the-top that Michael Bay decides “nah, this ain’t for me,” you know you’ve got a self-serving pile of trash on your hands.
Will Smith has been trying desperately to be part of a superhero cash cow franchise for ten years. When he swung and missed with After Earth and Suicide Squad, he grabbed ahold of the Bad Boys franchise, stomped on it, folded it over, and squished it into the glossy, ill-fitting superhero packaging he’d been so excited to flaunt for so long. What had been such a diamond in the rough of a buddy cop movie back in 1995 had been reduced to one man’s vanity project.
Bad Boys for Life reduced the friendship that formed the heart of the first movie into a subplot of a half-assed superhero flick, with Smith playing the part of Batman and Lawrence assuming the dual roles of Robin and Vicki Vale. Mike Lowrey becomes the canvas for a variety pack of overdone superhero tropes including: the dark and mysterious past, the long lost child, the fallen mentor, the villain with a blood vengeance and, of course, the near-death experience complete with please don’t die coma montage.
Marcus essentially plays the scared girlfriend role that many women in Hollywood probably would have turned down for being too sexist. He tends Mike’s bedside, even coloring his goatee for him during his coma. After Mike awakens, Marcus begs him to finally cease his toxic masculinity, complete with weepy “How dare you” speech when Mike insinuates that he’s not backing him up. Talia Shire herself could not have delivered it any better.
The climax violates all measures of common sense and even a few laws of physics, while the end credits scene (you knew damn well Will was gonna throw in an end credits scene) violates every sense of justice, making us wonder why the hell we were ever rooting for the good guys to defeat this villain in the first place. It’s a desperate shot in the dark to salvage another money grab out of a franchise that started out as something so simple and rare, and has ended (hopefully) as something so tired and derivative.
For the record, I like a lot of comic book movies. What I hate is that, now that comic books are “the thing” in Hollywood, slumping celebrities that are fresh out of new ideas are willing to cram a square peg into a round hole because that round hole is now the place to be. It’s the cool, confident kid in the back of the classroom ditching his leather jacket in exchange for an Abercrombie long-sleeve and an invite to the quarterback’s kegger.
If you’ve never seen Bad Boys, go see it now. If you’ve already seen it, go see it again.
If you’ve never seen Bad Boys II or Bad Boys for Life, don’t worry. The truth is, you really have seen them before.
Over and over again.