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Sequels typically happen in rapid succession. Jumanji: The Next Level arrives in theaters two years after Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Three John Wick movies have occurred since 2014. Other times, though, fan bases have to wait years – even decades – between installments, as when 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road followed up 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or when Tron Legacy arrived in theaters 28 years after the original Tron. Sometimes it’s worth the wait. Sometimes it isn’t.

Bad Boys for Life was worth it. Nearly 17 years have passed since Will Smith and Martin Lawrence played odd couple Miami detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett. That’s a long time to wait, but the anticipated sequel punches hard, drives fast through stylish explosions, cracks sharper-than-expected jokes, and basically celebrates everything that worked about the first two Bad Boys movies… while also falling victim to a few of the exaggerated flaws of the franchise, as well.

Now, cue the theme song and let’s dig into Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi’s Bad Boys For Life.

Will and Martin’s chemistry hasn’t dulled one bit.

They are the “Bad Boys” of the title, and the main reason (aside from director Michael Bay) fans dialed into the two previous Bad Boys films. Well, Bay didn’t return to the director’s chair this time, but Will Smith and Martin Lawrence felt compelled to bring Mike and Marcus out of cinema retirement, and now that I’ve seen Bad Boys For Life, I understand why.

These actors just click. The odd-couple formula isn’t groundbreaking, with Smith easily occupying the bulletproof playboy role and Lawrence personifying the reluctant family man with one eye on retirement. But no matter how much time has passed, the two actors with comedic backgrounds maintain a razor-sharp rapport that helps Bad Boys For Life sizzle in between its explosive action sequences. It’s been too long since we’ve seen these heroes, and it was good to catch up with them for another case.

The screenplay (credited to three writers) wisely embraces the fact that years have passed between stories, poking fun at the aging detectives and giving these characters life milestones so the audience invests deeply. There are grandkids and weddings, retirements and life-threatening complications. And you realize that you also care because Smith and Lawrence have made Mike and Marcus (and returning supporting player Joe Pantoliano) into relatable people who happen to exist in a hyper-stylized, entertaining action franchise.

The action is on par with the previous two films.

Michael Bay’s excessive directorial fingerprints are all over the first two Bad Boys, and while he doesn’t helm Bad Boys For Life, newcomers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah successfully mimic his style (sometimes doing shot-for-shot tributes) while also showing off their own chops. Slow-motion gimmickry is applied to bullet-whizzing firefights, and helicopters are employed liberally in a ludicrous finale photographed in a gorgeous, abandoned cathedral. Fallah and El Arbi’s biggest skill? Shooting car chases. Their cameras glide and swoop over impossibly cool autos as Mike chases adversaries. Bad Boys For Life has some of the coolest-looking car scenes in recent memory.

Nothing quite touches the signature Miami bridge car chase from Bad Boys II, mind you, but the set pieces staged in Bad Boys For Life will have you gripping your arm rest and cheering as Mike and Marcus waste criminals and face off against a worthy, lethal new adversary (whose top-secret motivations won’t be revealed here).

The script has huge surprises, but a lot of soap-opera silliness.

Credit goes to the screenwriters who came up with actual reasons to bring the Bad Boys out of Hollywood “retirement” for at least one more go-round. Bad Boys For Life doesn’t simply reheat beats from the first two movies, it bothers to advance the life stories of its main leads. Some of it is repetitive, but a larger focus on Mike means that the movie can take some chances, and it does right off the bat.

There are a number of major surprises in the story that caught me off guard, and one or two places where I predicted in my head what was about to happen, only to be pleasantly shocked by the left turn taken in the script. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid the conventional, Bad Boys For Life veers too hard into the sublime. Following one particular plot twist, Marcus actually says aloud, “This is some real telenovela shit,” referencing his characters penchant for consuming daytime Mexican soap operas while babysitting his new grand baby. Self-referential jabs help acknowledge the ridiculousness of the plot points, but they are still there, and they bring Bad Boys For Life down a few notches when all is said and done.

Still, this is a sequel that, on paper, could have been a disaster. As mentioned, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are 17 years older than they were in Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II, and Father Time is rarely kind to action stars. For every Blade Runner 2049, which more than justifies its existence, there are countless sequels that reak of “cash grab” by a studio looking to squeeze more from a recognizable and once-loved brand.

Bad Boys For Life, though, rewards fans of the original two movies with an action-packed, personality-fueled installment of a franchise that still has life. Stay through the end credits. There’s a scene that teases a potential continuation of the story on screen here. And after sitting through this one, it was more of a promise than a threat.

7 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five

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