The ‘Bad Boys’ Movies Have Always Been Terrible

‘Bad Boys for Life’ completes a perfect trilogy of films about two asshole cops who flaunted every macho cliché imaginable. Who cares if they’re kinder and gentler this time around?

It’s been so long since 1995’s Bad Boys that the film’s stars have been able to recycle old anecdotes while promoting their new sequel, Bad Boys for Life. Recently on the red carpet, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence mentioned who was initially tapped to play the squabbling, swaggering cops. “Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz were the original Bad Boys,” Smith said. “That would have been a little bit of a different movie.” This is hardly a revelation — it was talked about at the time constantly, and Lovitz even opened up about it 10 years ago:

“[Producers Don] Simpson and [Jerry] Bruckheimer, they wanted Dana, and then they added me into it afterward. But … the script was awful. They rewrote it for three months, but Disney didn’t want to do the new script. They wanted to do the original one, and it ended up going to Columbia. And [producer] Barry Josephson — who is a friend and used to be my manager — he decided to make it with two black actors, and that’s what happened. It was disappointing. I wanted to do it.” 

These types of near-miss casting stories often make for fun parlor games — What if Tom Selleck had been Indiana Jones? — but, for me, the point of this Bad Boys trivia was never that Carvey and Lovitz would have probably been worse in the roles. (Although I’m sure they would have been.) It’s that the script for the original Bad Boys was always pretty awful. The movie that helped launch Smith’s and Lawrence’s film careers isn’t some beloved classic or misunderstood masterpiece. Bad Boys is a pretty average Bruckheimer buddy-cop action-comedy helped by its stars’ charisma. It’s not worth remembering.

Of course, that’s just one man’s opinion, and clearly I’m in the minority. If initial tracking is correct, Bad Boys for Life looks poised to be a pretty sizable hit over the long weekend, even if it might not match the commercial success of 2003’s Bad Boys II, which came out just a few months after the U.S. invaded Iraq. (That was, like, four wars ago.) In the culture, the Bad Boys movies have a certain cachet — they represent an age of unbridled, bro-tastic action filmmaking in which men were men and chicks knew their place. It’s easy to get nostalgic about the Cro-Magnon simplicity of that mindset — a lot easier, in fact, than trying to rewatch the first two films. In some ways, the mediocre Bad Boys for Life might be the best of the series. But that’s only because the others are even worse.

Like other dusty franchises trying to reintroduce themselves to audiences, Bad Boys for Life uses the fact that its main characters are probably getting too old for this shit as a central plot point. Marcus (Lawrence) is ready to hang it up — he knows there’s more life behind him than in front, and he wants to spend his golden years around his family, not risking his life chasing bad guys. But confirmed bachelor Mike (Smith) doesn’t want to hear that quitter talk — as far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t lost a step. (Being a badass cop is his whole identity. How can he give that up?) Mike has become a cautionary tale about what happens when young dudes refuse to grow up — whether or not strutting hotshots like to admit it, Father Time always comes a-callin’.

What gave the first two Bad Boys films their spark was their leads’ brash, not-by-the-book police work. Taking the buddy-cop baton from Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh, Mike and Marcus chased down crooks in spiffy sports cars, trading bullets and barbs with glee. (Typical Bad Boys action sequence: Marcus screams in terror from the passenger seat, while Mike, cool as a cucumber, shouts “Whoo!” from behind the wheel while hitting the gas.) As a friend pointed out after Bad Boys for Life, Mike and Marcus’s dirty little secret is that they’re actually terrible cops. They flout the law. They cause tons of destruction — and probably the deaths of a few innocent bystanders. They invariably let the bad guys get away. And they make everybody around them miserable. (As the knowingly stereotypical harried captain, Joe Pantoliano is easily these films’ most sympathetic character. I’d hate to have to supervise these two cocky idiots.)

But now that Smith and Lawrence are in their 50s, it’s inevitable that the new film is, in a sense, a repudiation of Mike and Marcus’ reckless younger selves. Bad Boys for Life isn’t exactly The Irishman of buddy-cop movies, but there’s an attempt to suggest that these knuckleheads are learning that they can’t just be loud-mouthed jerks their whole life. Here’s the problem, though: A kinder, gentler Bad Boys movie really doesn’t work. The whole appeal of these movies is that Mike and Marcus are basically assholes. In the first film, they have to pretend to be each other to trick a beautiful eyewitness (Téa Leoni) into helping them. (We also meet Marcus’ long-suffering wife, played by Theresa Randle, who basically has to be the ball-busting killjoy.) In Bad Boys II, the homophobic humor increased, to cringe-worthy effect:

As much as the films try to convince us otherwise, Mike and Marcus aren’t cool — they’re macho jerks, aided and abetted by the first two movies’ director, Michael Bay. The man can make gonzo action sequences, but he’s never been a filmmaker with any sliver of humanity. He crafted several movies about transforming robots, but really none of his films have much flesh-and-blood to them. Bay’s films aren’t joyous or lighthearted — his humor is often mean and spiteful — and so Mike and Marcus were never lovable underdogs. They’re obnoxious bullies, the kind of muscle-bound, armed-to-the-teeth cops nobody wants around. And as much fun as it was to hang around Smith and Lawrence — if you could tolerate the tough-talk bravado Smith unconvincingly delivered, of course — it’s hard to care much about either of these dudes.

The adrenalized overkill of the first two movies — paired with Bay’s frat-like attitude toward women and non-straight men — has been commodified into a helpful term, “Bayhem,” which does a great job of synthesizing his exhausting aesthetic. It’s also made it easier to parody him. If Bad Boys still resonates in the culture, it’s through the films that have mocked it. In Hot Fuzz, director Edgar Wright sent up Bad Boys II’s action-sequence incoherence, while the 21 Jump Street movies are largely extended riffs on the Bad Boys franchise’s super-bad vibe, replacing Mike and Marcus with two clueless buffoons. We don’t remember Bad Boys because it’s great — we reference it because it’s outdated and ridiculous.

Bay isn’t part of Bad Boys for Life — save for an awkward cameo where he plays a charmless wedding emcee — replaced by the directing team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. The new film isn’t nearly as mean-spirited as the previous two installments, and emotional resonance is allowed to flourish without Mike and Marcus constantly worrying that people will think they’re gay. But those alterations are merely decorative — this is very much a film designed to wow you with big explosions and big chase scenes and careening camera moves. It’s a Bad Boys movie, which for a generation of filmgoers meant a certain kind of brawny action flick. It also represents a bygone era of staggering bro-ness that I don’t much miss. 

Bad Boys for Life asks us to feel bad for these aging cops, who come to realize that life is more than hot babes and cool cars. Maturity, I suppose you could call it. But for me, it’s the sign of a franchise so desperate to win you back that it’ll say anything: Hey, baby, I’m not that guy anymore. 

Don’t buy it: Bad boys rarely change.