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Long before Michael Bay became a punchline, he gave action movies a kick to the teeth

Will Smith wanted to be an action star. It took a music video director to do it.

Written by David Grossman
Originally Published: 

In 1993, the larger-than-life singer Meat Loaf released a nearly eight-minute music video for his epic single “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).” The video has police helicopters chasing motorcycles, motorcycles disappearing into mansions, police shooting up mansions, and so forth. The video, based on a combination of Beauty and the Beast and The Phantom of the Opera, had a cinematic quality. Appropriately, Hollywood took notice.

“He had never directed a feature-length film before,” Will Smith noted in his memoir Will. But “on a $50,000 budget, he managed to shoot a plane crash — with no special effects. He just crashed an airplane and shot it. In a pop video. His visual boldness, cinematic ingenuity, and fiscal wizardry” made the music video’s director, Michael Bay, the “unanimous choice” to guide Smith from the world of TV comedy to action star icon in 1995’s Bad Boys.

Bad Boys seemed like the perfect vehicle for Smith. It was an action buddy comedy in the mold of Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon, pairing Smith with another popular TV actor, Martin Lawrence of Martin. It felt like a sure thing, which is why it was so surprising when nothing clicked at a table read.

As Smith describes in Will, it was a script that “may have been perfect for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz” but was terrible for how he and Lawrence operated. The excitement vanished from the room, a producer called it trash, and the movie seemed like it would crash before it ever took off.

But the trio of Bay, Smith, and Lawrence used their experience in music videos and TV to make it work. The result is an action movie that feels very personal, and while the plot is generic, it’s also just an excuse for the three of them to create their dream scenes.

Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Miles Burnett (Lawrence) are partners in the Miami Police who always argue with each other. Lowrey has inherited wealth, is a womanizer, and drives an expensive car. He can’t stand that Burnett, a working-class married guy with kids, eats a messy hamburger inside his vehicle. That’s all it takes for the two to start jabbing at each other, even in the middle of a robbery.

The plot of Bad Boys revolves around heroin stolen from a vault in the Miami PD, much to the dismay of Lowrey and Burnett’s boss, Captain Conrad Howard (Joe Pantoliano). If he can’t find the missing drugs in 72 hours, Internal Affairs will shut down their department. This doesn’t make any sense, but roll with it.

Looking for suspects, Lowrey hits up an old friend, a sex worker named Max (Karen Alexander), and asks her to look out for anyone looking to party in a major way. She comes across the thieves, and decides to bring her roommate Julie (Téa Leoni) along for the party (refer to “this doesn’t make any sense, but roll with it,” above). Things go south, Max dies, Julie escapes. She demands to talk to the only cop she knows of, Mike Lowrey, but only Miles is available.

Michael Bay convinced Will Smith to open his shirt up a little.

Sony Pictures Releasing

So Miles has to pretend he’s Mike. This cascades into the two having to switch lives, with Miles becoming Mike entirely and Mike living with Miles’ wife. This doesn’t make any sense, and it’s difficult to roll with given that they could just tell Julie the truth. But you accept it because otherwise you would miss out on the fun of Miles and Mike clowning on each other, which makes up the heart of the movie.

Leoni and Lawrence have great chemistry as he tries to ignore her flirtations and struggles to describe his relationship with the man whose pictures are everywhere in an apartment that’s supposedly his. Mike’s girlfriends show up, Miles panics, the whole thing is a mess.

All of these plots feel like they belong on sitcoms, but what makes them stand out is Bay’s phenomenal camera work. Shots are either dulled-out grays or bursting with brightness, and Bay is single-mindedly focused on making Smith a star. While the actor was reluctant to run with his shirt off, Bay promised him it would work, and they compromised on an unbuttoned shirt. It worked. Smith comes off as a real-life superhero, and despite his flimsy characters, viewers are treated to heroic cinema.

Bad Boys doesn’t work like a great movie. It works like a series of funny sketches with cool characters, interrupted by well-shot action sequences, a few of which bleed into incredible beauty. After an interminable number of Transformers movies, it’s easy to forget that Bay had a unique eye for action. But revisiting his debut offers a reminder of why Smith was so excited to work with him.

Bad Boys is streaming on Netflix.

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