If you had told me in 1995 that 25 years later I would be reviewing a sequel to Bad Boys, I would have said “I actually got a job reviewing movies? That’s great! What daily newspaper do I write for?” Then once we cleared that whole situation up, I probably would have expressed some form of shock over the fact that in the year 2020 they were still making sequels to that okay-but-not-great action movie starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith that was seemingly based on nothing more than the fact that people really liked singing the theme song from the TV show Cops.

And yet, here we are. The year is 2020 and we are in fact talking about Bad Boys For Life the third film in the impossibly-long-running Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer cop thriller series. (And boy is it an intense jolt of nostalgia when their old lightning-strike logo thunders onscreen — in glorious SD!) Lawrence and Smith’s detectives Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowrey still patrol the mean streets of Miami, bending and breaking whatever rule stands in their way. Now, 17 years after the last film, this second sequel sincerely asks viewers to care about the inner lives of these two emotionally stunted cops as they investigate the wildest and deadliest case of their careers and ... it somehow pulls it off?

(I’m as shocked as you are.)

Rather than pretend 20 years haven’t passed since we checked in with Marcus and Mike, Bad Boys For Life leans in to the characters’ advancing ages. (Smith is 51, Lawrence is 54) Marcus is now a grandfather and wants to retire. Mike refuses to release him from their vow to ride together and die together as bad boys for life. He still believes he is bulletproof — until an old enemy from Mike’s past arrives in Miami looking for revenge.

Curiously, this is Will Smith’s second action film where he contemplates his mortality and reckons with the next generation of ass-kickers. Last fall’s Gemini Man was a more philosophical and artsy variation on almost the exact same ideas. The two movies would actually make an extremely interesting double bill; they compliment each other beautifully.

Gemini Man had Ang Lee’s graceful, kinetic fight sequences and its immaculate high frame rate compositions. Bad Boys For Life has Martin Lawrence cracking jokes, which is arguably even better. Lawrence, who makes beautiful music out every time he drawls the words “Mike Lowrey,” renders every scene brighter with his endearingly jovial presence. No plot twist is too silly that he can’t justify its presence simply by cracking jokes about it. And Bad Boys For Life has more than its share of silly plot twists.

When you see two aging stars who could really use a surefire hit return to a popular franchise, it’s easy to assume they made the new sequel with craven motives and little passion. That’s not the case with Bad Boys For Life. Both Smith and Lawrence came to play, and in between the bombastic chases and shootouts, there are long stretches where they just talk; about their lives, about their families, and about their relationship. Right from the first scene, the script by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan is about more than clever excuses to get these guys back in cool sports cars shooting at bad guys (although they definitely do a lot of that too). The themes introducing in the early scenes are explored in the second act, further expressed through the chases and fights, and resolved in the conclusion. This might sound like rudimentary stuff. But it’s sometimes shocking how few blockbusters successfully pull off the rudimentary stuff.

Besides Smith and Lawrence, Bad Boys For Life also features the returns of Joe Pantoliano as their long-suffering captain, and Theresa Randle as Marcus’s long-suffering wife. (There’s also an amazing callback to Bad Boys II that I will not spoil.) Really the only major player who didn’t show up is director Michael Bay, who apparently decided to make 6 Underground instead of this project.

Purists will probably balk at the notion of a Bad Boys without Bay — until they see it. His chair is filled by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who do an impressive job of sprucing up the series’ aesthetic while still finding room for plenty of visual nods to the earlier movies. They also balance a lot of humor, action, and pathos — and find room to develop Mike and Marcus’ new partners from a special division of Miami cops known as “AMMO” that includes young cops played by Vanessa Hudgens and Charles Melton.

As an extremely casual Bad Boys fan, I have never for one second cared whether they made a third film. Now that it’s here, I find myself genuinely shocked to announce I kind of want a fourth — provided they could bring back this creative team. Why not? They ride together, they die together. Bad Boys for life.

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