Bad Boys for Life Review: A Worthwhile Growing Pains Experience

Free from the high-octane grip of director Michael Bay for the first time, Bad Boys for Life allows the franchise to go through some serious maturation. The threequel delivers a much deeper and emotional chapter in the saga of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence's buddy-cop duo, with much lighter shades of the violent action and raunchy comedy that has defined the series. That's either a vast improvement or a massive loss of focus, depending on how you feel about the series, and, overall, Bad Boys For Life feels like a somewhat mixed bag that still manages to win viewers over, thanks to a combination of star power, nostalgia, and some fun new additions.

It's been a long 17-year wait between Bad Boys II and Bad Boys for Life, and that advancement of time is something that this Bad Boys threequel never lets us forget — whether intentionally or not (see: the visibly aged main cast). We catch up with Miami police detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) as Marcus achieves the milestone of becoming a grandfather. With that life change, Marcus is once again looking ahead toward what's next in life and pleads with Mike to do the same. Mike is not having any of that, of course, as he plans to continue being a crime-fighting "Bad Boy" cop for the rest of his days.

As it turns out, Mike's run may not continue long at all, as a ruthless Mexican cartel starts assassinating every lawman connected to a case from Mike's past. With Mike and Marcus on the outs, Mike gets embedded in a special unit of younger cops, led by his old flame, Rita (Paola Nunez). Things quickly become a battle of generations, as old and new cops each try to race the clock to solve the case before Mike potentially ends up on the wrong end of a bullet.

In a refreshing turn, Bad Boys for Life doesn't shy away from the notion that it is arguably arriving long after the franchise's expiration date. Writers Chris Bremner, Peter Craig (Top Gun: Maverick), and Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces) admirably lean into that fact and make it the emotional core of the story. What distinguishes Bad Boys for Life from its predecessors is how much time it invests in meaningful themes about aging and maturity, whereas, up until now, these films were a non-stop exaggeration of over-the-top action and irreverent trash-talk comedy. While Bad Boys II tried to inject some serious notions into the Mike/Marcus partnership, it was nowhere near as effective (or poignant) than what Bad Boys for Life achieves.

Smith and (especially) Lawrence each step up to carry their respective new dramatic weight, and the friendship between Mike and Marcus deepens in ways we haven't seen before. While the increased dramatic elements add substantive weight to the story (something Michael Bay never managed), it also slows the story down to a slow-burn pace. By the time that familiar Bad Boys swagger returns in full force, it's well into the film's two-hour run time; however, when that third act showdown arrives, Smith and Lawrence make it feel like they never missed a beat, let alone 13 years. Bad Boys for Life also takes the bold risk of throwing in some massive twists to the larger franchise mythos (if you can call it that), and manages to (mostly) pull them off cleanly, setting up a fresh new foundation that could help carry the franchise forward.

Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Snowfall) are worthy (if not quite equal) successors to Michael Bay. The aesthetic they create for Bad Boys for Life falls somewhere between the gritty '90s version of the original film and the candy-painted cartoonishness of the sequel. Miami is presented in darkly lavish fashion, and the directors don't miss an opportunity to make distinct callbacks to many of Bay's cinematic signatures (circular shots, those titillating club sequences, slow-motion action), often with tongue-in-cheek winks that acknowledge the silliness of Bayhem-brand filmmaking. In addition, there are a number of fun cameos from those who have been involved in the Bad Boys franchise, so between cameos and callbacks, there's a whole treasure trove of fun Easter eggs to spot.

While trips down memory lane are fun, Bad Boys for Life manages to inject some worthwhile new blood into the mix. Arbi and Fallah's vision for action is distinctly different from Bay's, and many of Bad Boys for Life's big action set pieces feel like something out of a video game in the way the camera swings and moves overhead across a room, tracking each main character throughout the shootout and/or fight. It takes a minute to adjust to the new stylistic approach, but it's enjoyable to watch once you do. The biggest achievement is giving Mike and Marcus an entirely new police squad to riff off of, and Bad Boys For Life makes sure to give each individual member of the "A.M.M.O." unit a chance to shine. Nunez's Rita is a nice female foil/love interest for Smith's Mike Lowrey, and Rita's team (which includes Vanessa Hudgens, Hunger Games star Alexander Ludwig , and Riverdale's Charles Melton) is made up of some uniquely fun and/or funny young cops. It's not a secret to say Bad Boys for Life sets the stage for the franchise to have a larger future — and A.M.M.O. would definitely be a big factor in that future.

Bad Boys for Life is a more of a solid continuation than a prime jumping-on point for new viewers, but longtime fans will likely appreciate seeing these Bad Boys do some growing up.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Bad Boys for Life opens in theaters on January 17th.