Maybe the third time really is the charm. I hated the original Bad Boys, and Bad Boys II is one of the worst movies I've ever seen. Bad Boys for Life, to my great surprise, is astronomically better. It emphasizes the one really good quality of the franchise – the chemistry between stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence – and gets rid of the racism, misogyny, and bloodlust that previous director Michael Bay brought to the first two installments. (Bay has a cameo, but whatever.) New directors Adil El Arbi and Bilail Fallah (Gangsta) clearly understand what it takes to make the series fun.
The villain this time around is Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo), a Mexican “witch” with a grudge against Mike Lowrey (Smith) because of something that occurred in their shared past. Newly escaped from prison, she puts into motion a plan to get revenge. It involves sending her highly-trained assassin son Armando (Jacob Scipio) to America for some dirty work. (Because the plot is built around several big surprises, I'll refrain from getting too specific.) Stopping them is tricky, especially since Mike's partner Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) has made a vow to God that he won't “put any more violence into the world.”
The bad boys get an assist from a skilled tactical team known as AMMO, whose members are played by Paola Nunez, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, and Charles Melton.
By divesting itself of the nastiness that marred the first two films, Bad Boys for Life is able to loosen up in a very entertaining way. Smith and Lawrence get to indulge in longer, funnier exchanges. Both actors are in peak comedic form here. They're visibly relishing their onscreen reunion, so it's easy for us to enjoy it, too. The rapport they work up provides many genuine laughs.
One noticeable difference is that this third entry gets more serious about character development. Bad Boys for Life delves into why Mike is the full-speed-ahead risk-taker that he is. Similarly, there is a reason why Marcus tries to turn over a new, pacifist leaf. Because the men are actual, relatable human beings this time rather than just rough-and-ready caricatures, there's weight to the plot's most unexpected revelations.
Adil and Bilal (as the directors are billed) stage the action sequences with style and without the chaotic mayhem that Bay relied upon. Those scenes are as over-the-top as any fan of the series would expect, yet far less lurid than in Bad Boys II. The best is a chase through the streets of Miami, with Mike and Marcus riding in a sidecar motorcycle that comes equipped with a small arsenal. The balance of comedy and action is spot-on.
Not everything in the story makes 100% sense, and the film's final twenty minutes get dark in a way that feels a little out-of-place compared to the rest of Bad Boys for Life. Not gruesome dark; more like thematically dark. I rolled with that tonal shift because it was at least interesting, although some viewers could lament the general abandonment of humor. What happens is not even remotely realistic, particularly the way one character abruptly shifts their personality.
Sure, Bad Boys for Life has flaws. The movie has fewer than its predecessors, though. Without the baggage of attempting to be wall-to-wall bad-ass, it is able to be precisely what it needs to be: a perfectly enjoyable piece of escapist action entertainment.
out of four
Bad Boys for Life is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use). The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.