'Bad Boys for Life' review: No country for old, worn-out action movies

Without the director that gave the franchise its identity, 'Bad Boys for Life' feels hollow as it struggles to uphold the Michael Bay mantle.

Columbia Pictures

It says so much that Bad Boys for Life is out in January. What should have been a summer knockout that also challenges the shortcomings of the summer action movie is instead a winter dud we’ll forget by February. Though Michael Bay haters will welcome his distance, aside from an ego-stroking cameo, Bad Boys for Life suffers from the absence of his vision, putting forth a pale imitation of his style.

In theaters January 17, Bad Boys for Life is the work of directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. As two Muslim European directors taking over from the most obnoxiously American artist of all time, the unknown duo is a compelling choice to helm this sequel. Together, they transform Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s nostalgic action films that practically defined the ‘90s buddy cop movie and turn it into an unfulfilling trilogy.

Will Smith in 'Bad Boys for Life'

Columbia Pictures

Set 17 years after 2003’s Bad Boys II, Miami’s finest, Marcus (Lawrence) and Mike (Smith), come to grips with middle age. While Mike still wants to party and serve justice like usual, Marcus has settled into early retirement. Where Mike still strolls into Miami’s back kitchens in suits to interrogate sources, Marcus is sleeping in front of the TV and watching telenovelas.

But when the son of a South American drug lord seeks revenge for his father and puts Mike in the hospital, the “Bad Boys” embark on one last ride — with a new, young squad dubbed “AMMO” stepping in to cramp their style.

Along with Smith and Lawrence are Paola Núñez as a fellow cop; Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio as the mother/son villains whose plot twist hinges on incomprehensible offscreen drama; Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, and a criminally underused Vanessa Hudgens as the millennial AMMO squad; and Joe Pantoliano, reprising his overly panicked Captain Howard, who looks to be one jump scare away from a heart attack.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith return as Marcus Burnett and "Mike" Lowrey in 'Bad Boys for Life'.

Columbia Pictures

With a lousy plot that lacks gravitational suspense, drama, and action set pieces that are just a notch above adequate, Bad Boys for Life fails to match up to the standards of modern action cinema. It is a lunkheaded movie without a heart, blistering and noisy without any of the infectious attitude that characterized its equally problematic predecessors.

Even if Bad Boys for Life didn’t do harmful things like put down therapy for men, it’s still just a dumb movie with a clunky script and daytime soap opera performances in a time when other action movies have never been sharper or smarter.

In the past decade, action movies matured by leaps and bounds, whether through novel world-building, the superhuman-izing of the gunslinger, or both. To its credit, Bad Boys for Life tries to do something equally ambitious with a story about middle-age mortality. (This is important when you know Bay himself acknowledged the primary demographic of his audience: teenage boys.) The film wisely bets its chips on the tension inherent to getting old and refusing to accept it. To paraphrase Marcus, the “Bad Boys” have more years behind them than in of them, and one of them just can’t deal.

That’s a smart starting place for Bad Boys for Life. But just because the movie wants to be a smart action movie, doesn’t mean it is one. Despite its clear intentions to challenge the reckless machismo of its protagonists — the movie has an awful lot in common with other pop culture, like 2017’s Logan, a film that dismissed the hyper-violence of Wolverine or the 2018 game God of War that showed a monster’s insufficient efforts to become a father. It just can’t let old habits die hard.

That neither Mike nor Marcus really come to grips with their age after the film’s first 20 minutes keeps Bad Boys for Life from being the movie it wants to be. That the movie also doesn’t make full use of its “new generation” characters — the tech-savvy AMMO squad that, again, wastes an overqualified Hudgens — to help Marcus and Mike grow is equally appalling. However unique these “kids” are, they’re simply not memorable enough together to earn our affection. If Bad Boys for Life is serious about renewing itself into the next generation, it should have been in these characters. But it does not, and consequently, the “for Life” part in the film’s title seems seriously in doubt.

A (forgettable) new team assembles in 'Bad Boys for Life'.

Columbia Pictures

If it booms like Michael Bay and visually parallaxes like Michael Bay, then it probably is a Michael Bay movie. But Arbi and Fallah, despite their best attempts, are not Michael Bay. (And that’s good! Maybe if they ever work with Megan Fox, they won’t treat her like shit.) To its detriment, Bad Boys of Life attempts to pay homage to Bay’s “Bayhem,” complete with mimicking several shots from the first two films. But the missing element that made those shots magical in years past is, unfortunately, Michael Bay.

While it is a good thing Bad Boys for Life wants to grow beyond the parameters Bay started with, its middling action set pieces, bloated plot twists, and climaxes that veer into “video game final boss” territory is a betrayal to those goals. That the film is also clumsy, boring, and lacks the same oomph its predecessors had is just salt in the wound. If Bay sat in the director’s chair, would Bad Boys for Life have been a better movie? No, but at least it would have been Bad Boys.

Bad Boys for Life is in theaters January 17.