It feels as though I've spent the best part of the last decade bemoaning the cheapness of the American action movie. The market crash of 2008 took a big toll on these generally corporate endeavours, and the studios' remaining resources were thereafter squirrelled into low-peril safe bets, such as those ongoing fantasy franchises wherein straightahead action is typically muffled by self-serious mythology. (I was raised on Con Air, honey; a fistful of infinity stones was never likely to impress me much.) In the summer of 2010, we found Hollywood's former action king Jerry Bruckheimer hedging his bets with two (for him) mid-budget productions: videogame adaptation Prince of Persia (empty junk) and fantasy romp The Sorcerer's Apprentice (livelier, if limited by its PG certificate). When neither did the anticipated business, Bruckheimer retreated into TV, and looked on, doubtless with some despair, as Gerard Butler was elevated to action-hero status, great white hopes (such as Crank's Neveldine/Taylor team) burnt themselves out, and the genre as a whole had to exile itself to the desert (site of George Miller's decade-standout Mad Max: Fury Road) to do what it does best: blow shit up in spectacular, screen-filling fashion. Perhaps he was waiting for the movies to revisit his Nineties heyday, a moment that has apparently arrived. Bruckheimer first resurfaced with an expensive flop in last October's Gemini Man, an unlikely Ang Lee-Will Smith pair-up that, for all its technical innovation, merely confirmed that ideas and concepts are a trickier sell to today's multiplex crowd than closely followed formulas. That Bruckheimer's Bad Boys for Life now emerges into the traditional studio dumping ground of January suggests few had any substantial hopes for it, yet it's clearly benefitted from being unlike anything else around - no-one's going to mistake it for, say, A Hidden Life - and our inevitably reduced expectations. Bottom line: it's better than a second sequel released seventeen years after its predecessor has any right to be. You can stick that on the poster if you like, Jerry.
1995's first Bad Boys was a savvy extension of the buddy-cop subgenre that had regularly cleaned up at the box office over the previous decade. Though it introduced audiences to two black cops - the stellar Will Smith, hot from TV, and the emergent, sometimes wayward comic Martin Lawrence - the underlying formula remained the same: one cop proved as uxorious as Danny Glover had been in Lethal Weapon, the other almost as reckless as Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon and beyond. (If there was a twist, it lay in the casting of the generally upstanding Smith as this loosest of cannons.) 2003's splurge of a sequel found directing Michael Bay starting to get drunk on his own idea of "Bayhem": it was bigger, longer and louder, with a running joke about a nude female corpse that was problematic before the hashtag. One advantage of Hollywood's enforced action hiatus may have been to purge the genre of its worst excesses: with Bay storming off to Netflix (to make the profligate, not terribly well received 6 Underground), Bruckheimer has hired cheaper migrant labour in the young Belgians known as Adil and Bilall, first brought to Hollywood after 2015's eye-catching Black to work on a fourth Beverly Hills Cop that remains in development hell. His leads are now firmly middle-aged: Lawrence's Marcus becoming a grandpa as the credits roll, Smith's "Bulletproof Mike" briefly confined to a wheelchair after a hit carried out by a vengeful Mexican cartel, the action paused briefly amid one shootout so that Marcus can put his glasses on ("Shit, this is like HD!"). At every turn, the joke is a familiar one, that these two might well be too old for this shit: even the opening reprise of Inner Circle's theme song, a marker of connoisseurial cool back in the Bay era, is brought to a screeching halt after Marcus makes the totally uncool mistake of smashing the door of Mike's sleek sports car into a kerbside fire hydrant. In that car door lies a reflection of the series entire. For an hour or so, Bad Boys for Life exudes the nuts-and-boltsy appeal of one of those reality shows on far-flung cable channels where bald-headed men in sleeveless vests go to work in flatteringly lit garages. We're watching a franchise being panelbeaten into roadworthy, market-ready shape.
This has evidently entailed a group effort, onscreen as well as off. Witnessing the insanely pinballing plot of the movie's first hour - almost certainly a consequence of multiple script rewrites attempting to fit the right plot engine and get the damn thing going again - you may begin to question just how much faith this series still has in the Bad Boys concept. Smith and Lawrence have more scenes apart than they do together, possibly because only one of them is in any real shape to play bad, and we're introduced to a multi-ethnic back-up crew seemingly modelled on the tech support team now built into the Fast & Furious franchise. (In this instance, you feel they're here as a safety net: to carry whatever the now-fiftysomething leads with increasingly patchy box-office form cannot.) That first hour is not much more than a highish-octane recruitment drive, such that a midfilm peptalk given to Mike by his cherishably dyspeptic superior Joe Pantoliano - "Where are you going?" - sounds equally like dialogue and notes Bruckheimer left on the script mid-rewrite. What follows, however, bears out one of this producer's eternal strengths: that - however long it takes, however many scribes the process requires - he does generally get the story right. Here's where his youthful co-directors take over, pacing themselves far better than they did in their breakthrough work, which went off like a rocket only to wind up being put down under a tarpaulin in an adjacent car park. Bad Boys for Life never flags entirely, and in fact its closing stretch proves stronger than what's preceded it.
While avoiding Bay's high-gloss "frame-fucking" - of which, after 200 or so hours of Transformers movies, we've all endured too much - Adil and Bilall have brought in an instalment that tessellates broadly with the look of its predecessors, punctuating its frantic activity with handsome sweeps over Miami at night. If their action initially feels tentative and throwbacky, self-contained in a way it wasn't in Bruckheimer's better films - you'll need to be slightly more excited than I am by the prospect of shootouts in warehouses and underground carparks - it is at every turn far more solid than the patched-in VFX and ugly digital scuffles of Butler's Fallen franchise. Money has been shelled out, not just on the cars but for the stunt drivers to pilot them, occasioning at least one flinch-inducing pursuit that sticks Smith and Lawrence in a motorcycle-and-sidecar, and treats them as though they were a live-action Wallace and Gromit. (We're reminded of the spiritual bond between the action movie and our physics-defying animations.) And at the last, in a setpiece with actual stakes, something like a Holy Grail presents itself: this genre's first properly exploding helicopter since Lehman Brothers went to the wall. Money has been spent, then, and money (over $100m worldwide in its first week) has been made. Too early to declare that the American action movie has got its mojo back: bitter experience tells us that one swallow doesn't make a summer movie season, especially not in the grey depths of January. Yet Bad Boys for Life at least gets it off the couch again, and what could have resembled no more than a mid-franchise crisis or terminal dead end instead takes on the surprising look of a fresh start - the reopening of a cheque book, the lifting of that garage door.
Bad Boys for Life is now playing in cinemas nationwide.