Director Michael Bay made his filmmaking debut with Bad Boys 25 years ago and, with that medium-sized but exhilarating sleeper and the enjoyable The Rock, looked like a Tony Scott clone to watch for. Instead, with the release of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and four rancid Transformers abominations, Bay solidified his reputation as America’s worst filmmaker. Bay’s gargantuan, irresponsibly lavish, screeching, incoherently edited, moronically written, and badly overacted movies are cinematic torture chambers for me. Each one has aged as well as a season of “The Jerry Springer Show.” It gives me enormous pleasure to announce that Bay didn’t write, produce, or direct the third installment, “Bad Boys For Life,” which is, not coincidentally, a better movie for his behind-the-camera absence. If that sounds mean, try sitting through Transformers: Age of Extinction again. Go ahead, tough guy, I dare you. 

For the first time since 2003, we catch up with the flashy, single, and reckless detective Mike Lowrey (played by Will Smith) and his clumsy, domesticated partner, Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), who are still shooting and blowing stuff up as a means of crime fighting. A recent series of murders throughout Miami inspires the team to take on a case “one more time…” because, you know… they’re “Bad Boys For Life.”

This teeters somewhere between a desperate movie made with competence and a guilty pleasure that never rises entirely to the grandly juvenile vision its chasing. Perhaps Bay’s absence from the director’s chair (just typing that makes me smile) resulted in not just the budget shrinking but some necessary adjustments. 

On the one hand, this is a movie that wants to exist in a different time (namely, the nihilistic late 1990s), as it’s sadistically violent and madly in love with guns. Like last year’s Rambo: Last Blood, this belated franchise resuscitation wants you to embrace how its main character (Smith’s) is a psychotic killer who loves murder (Smith’s charisma barely keeps this under the surface). On the other hand, the synonym for a female dog is only uttered once, unlike in the vile, insanely bloated Bad Boys II, which opens with the word and uses it roughly 357 times. 

First-time directing team Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah exude confidence, provide the expected visual gloss (this is a gorgeously shot film), are up to staging big car chases with real stunts and keep this grittier than anything Fast or Furious. Yet, the climactic battle, as accomplished as it is, has too much obviously phony CGI (a problem the recent Terminator also shares). 

While this is still a total bromance, with the ladies kept on the side (the talented and forever-underutilized Theresa Randle returns to the thankless role of Martin’s fed-up spouse), it’s slightly less misogynist than before and the rampant homophobia is gone. Now, our heroes don’t express gay panic while voicing their love for one another, but this is still pretty sexist and incredibly stupid, just as before. So much for progress. 

What I really like about Bad Boys For Life is that it has a pair of great villains, very well played by Jacob Scipio and Kate del Castio. After 40 minutes of coasting, the second act really picks up, with the action sequences and one-liners (as lowbrow as they are) registering as strongly as you’d hope. The story builds some genuine intrigue, making this a strangely on-the-nose companion piece to Smith’s recent Gemini Man. Also, bringing back Mark Mancina’s exciting theme music was wise; though, aside from Inner Circle’s title track, the songs on the soundtrack don’t register (Diana King’s “Shy Guy,” off the first movie, remains a high school favorite for me). 

Finally, Michael Bay may not be in the director’s chair but he’s in the movie, literally. Playing a wedding MC, his cameo is terrible, but I have to hand it to him: The most gratuitous form of Bay-hem in this movie is Bay himself. 

Two and Half Stars

Rated R/124 Min.

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