Culture

Review: ‘Bad Boys for Life’

If it’s for life… it’s a life sentence

Bad Boys for Life, the blockbuster reboot of the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence violent-buddy-cop franchise that arrived a mere 17 years after Bad Boys II, takes place in an alternate universe. Sure, it looks like Miami, with the Intracoastal and the boats and the white high-rises and the noisy clubs. And theoretically, the year is 2020. But this is a 2020 Miami in which cops can go around killing dozens of people in shootouts on Collins Avenue and not get into any trouble. This is a Miami in which a drug dealer assassin can fly a helicopter and shoot up a bridge and then just fly away scot-free. This is a Miami where an honest cop drives a Porsche and lives in a $7 million apartment. This is a Miami in which cops don't retire after they get their 20 years in. After all, why should they? On their police department salaries, they can buy Porsches and $7 million apartments.

All of this is to say, if you like cop movies in which the cops are living high on the hog, dressing in Armani, and exchanging comic quips while they slaughter people left and right, you will love this thing. You will love it, that is to say, if you loved the sub-genre that birthed it—the Lethal Weapon genre. Before Lethal Weapon debuted in 1987, the key quality of a cop movie was its grittiness. Cop movies were about the mean streets, the violent criminals who made them mean, and the haunted police officers fighting a perennial battle to stave off the forces of darkness threatening to overwhelm civilization.

The apotheosis of the form was The French Connection, which shows a decayed New York being protected, if that's what you want to call it, by a comparably decayed policeman named Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle. You can practically taste the bad coffee Popeye drinks and smell the garbage left rotting on the sidewalks through which he pursues a heroin dealer. Watch The French Connection today and what will strike you is the accretion of detail about just how difficult, lonely, and life-sucking it is to be a cop—how boring and freezing-cold the stakeouts are, how difficult it is to maintain surveillance of a perp, and how the city in question is in such awful shape you wonder why anyone would even bother.

That was the deal—until Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver and director Richard Donner got the inspired idea to morph the cop movie into a James Bond picture. Lethal Weapon discarded the pseudo-documentary feel and substituted glossy, jokey, profane dialogue scenes interrupted at regular intervals by utterly implausible action sequences Silver called "whammos"—chases ending in explosions. Logic and even a connection to physical reality were deemed not only unnecessary but kind of a buzzkill. Cars fly through the air, land 50 feet away, and are not only drivable but can continue to function like high-performance racers. Audiences ate it up. They were tired of depressed cynical cops fighting a losing battle. They wanted action hero cops who treated bad guys like they were Bond villains, and that's what they got.

Dozens of similar movies followed (many of them direct to video) over the next couple of years; by 1993, Last Action Hero was looking to parody the genre. The problem is you can't parody something that's already an implicit parody, and Last Action Hero was even more leaden and witless than the movies it was making fun of. By the time the original Bad Boys debuted in 1995, I had come to dislike this type of picture so intensely I didn't bother seeing it.

So how you react to Bad Boys for Life will depend entirely on whether you are nostalgic for a good old hyperviolent, deliberately ridiculous cop picture set in an alternate universe that pretends it's real, or whether the thought of revisiting the genre feels like going to a classic Vegas hotel that should have been razed long ago. I'd understand if you went and loved it, but as for me, to quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, "I'm too old for this s—t."