Capsule Reviews: Revisiting Bad Boys Trilogy

With the much-anticipated fourth instalment of Bad Boys: Ride or Die arriving in June, it’s time to look back at the trilogy, which began life in 1995. The time when Martin Lawrence, Will Smith and Michael Bay weren’t a household name yet but the first Bad Boys changed everything. It was one of the best buddy-cop movies in the ’90s era but despite the financial success, the franchise somehow took longer than expected to come up with the two subsequent sequels in 2003 and 2020.

Bad Boys (1995)

Martin Lawrence, Téa Leoni and Will Smith in "Bad Boys" (1995)

It’s hard to believe that Bad Boys was originally set to feature SNL stars Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz in the lead roles. The title wasn’t even known as Bad Boys back then but Bulletproof Hearts, where co-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer bought Midnight Run‘s George Gallo’s script in 1986.

But after several pre-production hiccups, Disney eventually bailed out before Columbia Pictures took over the project instead. Carvey and Lovitz were out as Simpson and Bruckheimer opted for two rising TV stars to replace them. One would be Martin Lawrence from What’s Happening Now!! and Martin and the other was Will Smith of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fame. Accomplished music video veteran (Donny Osmond’s “Soldier of Love”, Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”) Michael Bay was brought in, marking his feature-length debut and granted a US$19 million budget.

Casting Martin Lawrence and Will Smith resulted in a comedy gold and their buddy-cop chemistry clicks the moment they appear on-screen, bickering and dissing each other. The story sticks closely to the tried-and-tested buddy-cop comedy formula that we have seen many times before. It may have been clichéd but Bay, working from Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland and Doug Richardson’s screenplay, brings a much-needed zest on the narrative and visual fronts. The former is particularly evident in a hilarious case of mistaken identity involving Lawrence and Smith switching roles. Here, we have Lawrence playing Smith’s smooth-talking ladies’ man Mike Lowrey while the latter becomes Lawrence’s family man Marcus Burnett.

Bay’s music video background is put to good use and together with Howard Atherton’s crisp cinematography, Bad Boys sizzles with its distinct shots of the vibrant and sun-baked Miami locations (the iconic low-angle shot of a plane flying over the Miami sign comes to mind). The action is top-notch, notably the thrilling foot chase sequence where Will Smith pursues the bad guys with his shirt unbuttoned. The scene includes one of Bay’s trademark shots: the slow and stylish 360-degree spin of the character(s) standing up from the low angle.

Bad Boys also benefits from equally notable co-stars including Téa Leoni as the eyewitness Julie Mott, Tchéky Karyo as the main protagonist Fouchet and Joe Pantoliano’s scene-stealing supporting turn as the infuriated, Pepto Bismol-dependant Captain Conrad Howard.

The surprise success of Bad Boys, which made US$ 141.4 million worldwide not only gave Martin Lawrence and Will Smith their respective breakout roles in Hollywood but also helped to establish Michael Bay as one of the most sought-after directors at the time.

Bad Boys II (2003)

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith returns in "Bad Boys II" (2003)

Marcus Burnett: This is some sick sh**!
Mike Lowrey: Yup, it’s about to get sicker.

The word “sicker” is best described for the over-the-top sequel of Bad Boys II. It was a long, eight-year wait between the 1995 original and its follow-up. Michael Bay was even granted a bigger budget at his disposal. As big as US$130 million, complete with a bloated 147-minute runtime and the “sicker” parts that I mentioned earlier about this sequel? It’s distasteful in every way possible from the crass humour of all things hyperboles — juvenile, racist and even homophobic.

At one point, Bay and his screenwriters Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl figure it’s funny to use dead bodies for silly gags, both during a morgue scene and a van chase. It was as if Bay wanted to evoke the sensational and euphoric rush of ecstasy displayed in the sequel’s storyline and visuals. Besides, the plot itself involved Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett on the case to capture Johnny Tapia (Jordi Mollà), the notorious Cuban drug kingpin who’s been making a fortune selling ecstasy in Miami.

Bad Boys II could have used some serious trimmings and that is sticking to its more than sufficient 2-hour length. But the sequel remains a fun ride with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s buddy-cop chemistry playing off each other well. Some of the jokes do land successfully, notably the part where Reggie (Dennis Greene) has to put up with Marcus and Mike’s verbal abuses for dating Marcus’s daughter, Megan (Bianca Bethune). The sequel also introduced a memorable new character played by Gabrielle Union as Marcus’s younger sister, Sydney, who works as a DEA undercover.

With a bigger budget, Bay goes all out in the action sequences. His camerawork may have been more frenetic compared to his 1995 debut but he still directs them with enough propulsive energy to keep you engaged. The freeway chase sequence is one of them — a high-speed pursuit, multiple-vehicle pileup and most of all, the bad guys release the cars off the trailer truck and let them roll violently on the road as Marcus and Mike dodge them left and right. Then, there’s the climactic third act that pays homage to the first Police Story‘s legendary opening sequence and here, we have Mike and his team crashing the Hummer H2 crashing through the hilly terrain of the drug dealers’ shacks.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)

The older Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life" (2020)

Bad Boys for Life marks a series of firsts in its franchise history. It broke records for the longest wait — 17 years, to be exact — between the 2003 sequel and this third instalment. Michael Bay was originally slated to return but the production delays, coupled with several other factors including higher salary demands resulted in a replacement of another director. Joe Carnahan of Narc, Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team fame, was set to take over the franchise before Belgian directing duo Adil & Bilall got the gig instead.

The duo emulate some of Bay’s filmmaking style but none of the excess that dominated the latter’s career these days. They could have just played safe with the strict nostalgia factor of a buddy-cop formula and while they did adhere to the tropes, the story — credited to Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan — manages to take up a few notches. The fact that Will Smith and Martin Lawrence had already turned fiftysomethings by the time the third movie arrived, Bad Boys for Life gamely addressed their ageing factors, mixing matter-of-fact and humour around its subject. The movie isn’t afraid to show off some unexpected moments, which helps to raise the stakes.

Smith and Lawrence’s buddy-cop chemistry remains fun to watch while the movie welcomes the worthy additions of new characters played by Paola Nuñez, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton as the members of the elite police squad, AMMO. The action set pieces are both thrilling and stylish as they should be in a Bad Boys movie, particularly the motorcycle-with-a-sidecar chase scene and the climactic gunfight in Mexico City.