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Review: In 'Bad Boys for Life,' third time has its charms

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are at it again in this three-quel that takes its time to get going

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's not clear from the outset, but there's still a little gas left in the "Bad Boys" tank. 

"Bad Boys for Life" is a mostly expendable entry into the "Bad Boys" franchise, the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence buddy cop series, which has been dormant since 2003's putrid "Bad Boys II." 

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys for Life."

The jokes about how they're too old for this ring true, not because of their age — Smith is 51, Lawrence is 54 — but because the material they're working with is as crisp as microwaved french fries. 

But then the last half hour or so kicks in, and suddenly there's some punch in detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence). The task force of millennials they're asked to team with and rub up against — including Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn ("The Hunger Games'" Alexander Ludwig) and Rafe (Charles Melton, "The Sun is Also a Star") — springs to life. And the action scenes, particularly a nighttime chase through the streets of Miami, deliver the sort of inspired mayhem you hope for from a "Bad Boys" movie.

It's not easy getting to that point, however.

We open with our fair boys of bad zooming through Miami on their way to the birth of Marcus' grandson. Now that he's Pop-pop, Marcus is ready to slow down and spend his days catching up on soap operas and not chasing bad guys. 

Not Mike, who's still gung-ho and busy living the single life. But when he gets shot on the street by a motorcycle-riding assailant — don't worry, six months later and he's as good as new — he's out for revenge, and leans hard on his old pal to get the band back together for, wait for it, one last time.

The "Bad Boys" movies — the first arrived in 1995, and marked the feature film debut of Michael Bay — were hard-R exercises in violence and comedy, with F-bombs mixing with actual bombs, and Bay's sleek style-over-substance aesthetic providing a narrative blueprint.

The approach is softer this time around, and Bay is gone, though he gives the film his seal of approval by appearing in a brief cameo as a wedding emcee. In Bay's place is directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who provide the requisite bang, while the script by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan never strays far from aging jokes, crime clichés and excuses for Mike and Marcus to sing Inner Circle's "Bad Boys" theme song over and over again. 

Then a third act swerve arrives, which essentially turns "Bad Boys for Life" into a riff on last year's disastrous Will Smith vehicle "Gemini Man," with a weird, unexpected twist that takes the franchise in an otherworldly direction. But it gives Lawrence's character something to do (i.e., jaw at Smith's character), and "Bad Boys" comes alive, riding to a satisfactory finale.

Does it make a ton of sense? Not really, but narrative consistency has never been "Bad Boys'" strong suit. At its best, the series is about chemistry, friendship, explosions and sunny scenery, and by the end those things are intact enough that the door is open for a "Bad Boys 4" — you'd have thought they would have saved the title "Bad Boys 4 Life" for that entry — and it doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

Smith and Lawrence's characters spend a lot of "Bad Boys for Life" talking about they're each other's ride-or-dies. If that's the case, might as well ride until the wheels fall off.

'Bad Boys for Life'

GRADE: C+

Rated R: for strong bloody violence, language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use

Running time: 124 minutes