New life: Michael Bay-directed franchise improves without him

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith reprise their buddy-cop roles in Bad Boys for Life, directed by buzzworthy Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbiand Bilall Fallah. COLUMBIA PICTURES Martin Lawrence and Will Smith reprise their buddy-cop roles in Bad Boys for Life, directed by buzzworthy Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbiand Bilall Fallah. COLUMBIA PICTURES

Who knew the only thing a Michael Bay sequel needed was a new director to rein it in? Say what you want about Michael Bay’s movies (Lord knows I have), but his work is inimitable. You can tell right away if you’re watching authentic Bay or a knockoff. He is a master of his own technique, and if you want nauseating nonsense, there’s no one better. He truly lives for what he does, which is more than can be said for many directors.

At first glance, having someone new direct a sequel to a Bay movie seems like an even bigger mistake than letting Bay do it in the first place, like a sugar-free version of a soda that was gross to begin with. Enter Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah with Bad Boys for Life. These Belgian filmmakers on the rise unleash the potential that was always there with the series, but was suffocated by its direction with a script unworthy of its lead performers. There are shootouts and car chases, but this time they can be enjoyed without Dramamine. There are jokes, but they’re written by people who know what’s funny, and delivered by actors who understand why a character would say such a thing.

Bad Boys for Life

R, 134 minutes

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The film follows Detectives Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett (Will Smith and Martin Lawrence), longtime Miami police partners. After nearly a quarter century of taking down bad guys, Marcus is ready to retire. Tired of the violence and lack of security, he’d rather sit in his reclining chair and help his newborn grandchild grow up. Mike, meanwhile, takes this as a betrayal and has no intention of slowing down, until a mysterious assassin guns him down in the street. Mike recovers, but not before momentarily dying, and the pursuit of his would-be killer leads him to unexpected discoveries that make him question what he truly believes. Maybe he can’t run from his past, maybe there is a better future without the shootouts and fast cars.

If you’ve ever seen an R-rated buddy-cop movie, you will probably figure out the foreshadowing right away. But that’s just the thing: A film with Michael Bay’s name on it has real, honest-to-God foreshadowing. It has themes, ideas, even a meaningful title. “Bad boys for life,” but whose life? Does that hold true after Mike died before being resuscitated?

The genre’s formula is played to its strengths, and the talented directing team makes sure a joke lands before the next one starts. You know who’s shooting before someone gets shot, and you see where the car is going before it crashes. Bad Boys for Life has all of the boilerplate things that make a movie competent and watchable, with the added bonus of being fun and funny along the way.

The dynamic between Smith and Lawrence remains the main attraction as in previous installments. Both put in the work of carrying an action franchise while appearing totally at ease in the roles. Special attention must be paid to Lawrence, who brings depth and sensitivity to Marcus. The actor-comedian has been full of surprises, with a compelling turn in last year’s Beach Bum, and now delivering real emotion in a decades-old guns-and-gags series. If this is the last entry—“One last time,” as Mike and Marcus say—Bad Boys for Life should mark a new beginning for Lawrence’s career.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

Stop Making Sense

NR, 88 minutes/Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

January 27

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