No one wants to mess up a good thing. That’s why I won’t let my mom add turkey to my grilled cheese. I mean I like turkey, love it even, but what if, for the first time in recorded history, a piece of dead animal carcass threw off the balance of a sandwich? What if, in an unthinkable twist, a slab of meat actually makes my food taste worse? That is a risk I am not willing to take. I like my grilled cheese sandwiches the way they are. If you change them, you might lessen their greatness. If you alter the formula, even slightly, they might lose their magic forever.
This affection is what made me so nervous to see its follow up, Bad Boys For Life. After 17 years they were making a sequel to my favorite movie, itself a sequel that defied the odds by being undeniably superior to the original, mostly by capitalizing on the shocking success of its predecessor to gain a budget bigger than the GDP of many developing nations. But the awesomeness of Bad Boys II did nothing to guarantee the quality of Bad Boys For Life. After all, they were making a sequel to a sequel almost two-decades after the fact. There was a real chance that the spark could be gone. There was a real possibility that Bad Boys For Life could be so shitty that its mere existence would lessen one of humanity’s all-time great works of art.
We all know that horrendous sequels exist, and in time they can become laughingstocks that sometimes change the way we view the brilliance of their forebears. Godfather 3. Caddyshack 2. Any Star Wars film featuring Hayden Christensen. A couple of movie series have nailed the mass-production recipe sure (think Lethal Weapon or Fast & Furious), but in general, if your favorite film franchise sticks around long enough, it is going to start churning out some duds. And those duds have consequences. In my opinion, The Hangover is one of the two best comedies of its era. But you can’t tell me you don’t forget about it or lower its standing when discussing the funniest movies of all-time, even if it’s just a little, due to the mediocrity of the rest of the trilogy. Or you can tell me that. You will just be lying.
I didn’t want Bad Boys II to suffer the same fate. That was the fear lurking in the back of my mind as I settled into my seat, dumped half a bag of superfluously buttered popcorn onto my pullover, and started the show. When the opening credits rolled, I felt both a rush of adrenaline and a tinge of anxiety. When Mike Lowrey’s Porsche came screeching across the screen as he yelled at Marcus to put on his glasses, I felt elated, but tentative as well. For the next two hours I sat there, on the edge of my seat, enthralled and, in the far recesses of my consciousness, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Only it never did. After seeing Bad Boys For Life I can tell each of you that, in this instance, the other shoe stayed where it was, hovering above the ground, never once tumbling down to the surface.
This is not to say that Bad Boys For Life is a perfect movie, far from it. There are a few glaring plot holes and a lot of irrational decision making (if a sniper is after you, why are you spending so much time on open-air balconies overlooking the city that provide him with a clean shot?). Some of the fight scenes, while badass, have corny moments of over scripted sensationalism, at least one of which makes it seem as if Vanessa Hudgens might not actually know how to use a gun (in spite of this she was awesome, her best on screen performance since HSM). It can be argued that the stakes are raised too high, higher than they ever were in the previous two Bad Boys flicks, to the point of creating an edge in Bad Boys For Life that took away a tiny bit of the levity and fun that made Bad Boys II such a goddamn good time. And then there is my biggest gripe: Martin Lawrence doesn’t ingest any hallucinogens, accidentally or otherwise. Man. It is going to take me a long time to get over that one.
No Bad Boys For Life is not perfect. What it is, however, is a triumph of the human spirit, a film that both changed with the times and yet remains exactly the kind of movie that it ought to be. Will Smith is still Mike Lowrey, the reckless ladies man who plays by his own rules and refuses to be tied down to anything other than his swanky suits and fully loaded sports cars. Martin Lawrence is still Marcus Burnett, the clumsy family man who is constantly tiring of Mike’s renegade behavior until he isn’t, until his boy needs him to ride, until Mike discovers that no motorcycle chase is worth it without his goofy partner sitting there, firing off rounds from the sidecar. In that sense the formula hasn’t been altered. The stars’ chemistry is as good as it ever was.
But things are different now. They say it’s hard for an old dog to learn new tricks, and Mike and Marcus have both conspicuously aged. Early in the film Marcus becomes a grandfather. A scene or two later he calls out Mike for dying his goatee a shade of black he calls midnight cocoa bean and, for unmentioned reasons, would notice anywhere. The film doesn’t run from its two decade hiatus, but rather embraces it, and uses it to create conflict. Mike has a hard time coping with new realities, both for himself and for the world around him, acting like the proverbial dinosaur in the china shop who will never admit that he has lost a step or has anything to learn. Marcus wants to run away and hide, to retire from the Miami PD and leave the smash and grab lifestyle behind. Marcus wants to act like he has any other choice than to be a Bad Boy For Life.
In the end, with help from the youthful, technologically advanced super squad Ammo (which includes the aforementioned Vanessa Hudgens), the Bad Boys figure out their shit and come back with a vengeance, showing the world that you can stay true to who you are now, without remaining a slave to who you used to be. The Bad Boys rip and they run, they shoot guns at criminals and jump out of helicopters and have very serious conversations with complete strangers about whether or not one should wear a condom while fornicating with a witch. Marcus and Mike keep our hearts racing and our bellies shaking with giggles, just like they did 17 years ago.
Bad Boys For Life is a fantastic movie on its own merits because the people that made it didn’t mess with success. They simply tweaked it just enough to create something capable of standing on its own two feet, while keeping the seminal truth behind the franchise’s greatness intact. The Bad Boys movies, underneath all the explosions and one-liners and fast cars, are ultimately about friendship. Friends who ride together. Friends who will die together. Friends who will stay Bad Boys for the rest of their life because they have learned, once and for all, that is the only way for them to become good men.