High on a potent cocktail of screeching tires and sassy dialogue, Bad Boys is a jumbled mess of a buddy comedy, far too invested in its bewilderingly swift action sequences and trite mistaken identity scenario to nurture genuine chemistry between its leads or inspire anything aside from ambivalence. Emotional resonance may be a bridge too far for a brainless actioner, but it’s impossible not to envision a deeper connection between the protagonists, a bond reduced to broad strokes and glib exchanges in favor of brevity and superfluous f/x work.
Polar opposites in every way, Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) are Miami narcotics detectives that bicker like Felix and Oscar, wholly discordant in their demeanor, tax bracket and sexual prowess, only bonded by a mutual profession and undisclosed backstory. Marcus is diminutive in height and self-confidence, too delicate for police work or the struggles of a sexless marriage, relegated to a perpetual state of distress and emotional overeating. Mike is his casanova counterpoint, shuffling through paramours and greenbacks with a devil-may-care bravado, incensed only by questions of his charmed upbringing or Marcus’ passion for spilling french fries between the seats of his pristine Porsche 911.
Tasked with tracking down the architect behind a police department vault heist, Marcus and Mike have 72 hours to retrieve the contents of the coffer before Internal Affairs figures the caper for an “inside job” and curmudgeonly captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) is forced to shutter the doors and maniacally gnash the head of his cigar at an alternate location. After a trail of fresh corpses proves to be fruitless, Mike spreads the word to his army of informants to keep their eyes peeled for hot-shot crooks blowing through wads of cash, a tip his prostitute ex-girlfriend Maxine (Karen Alexander) heedlessly pursues. Gunned down in grandiloquent fashion by a double-dealing detective’s criminal cohorts, Maxine’s death spins the story off into two equally clichéd and insipid directions: an underdeveloped vengeance plot for Mike and comedy of errors for Marcus.
In an effort to assuage the concerns of a petrified witness, Marcus must fool Maxine’s roommate Julie (Téa Leoni) into thinking that he’s the debonair Lothario they’ve always gossiped about, a gambit that spins a tangled web of lies and familial drama that strains for laughs while it paints each character into a one-dimensional corner. Marcus’ wife suffers the brunt of these ham-fisted narrative shortcuts, settling uncomfortably into the role of nagging wife, existing only to bust Marcus’ balls and misconstrue the objective of his detective work and devotion to his family. Surely the wife of a veteran police officer would have a better understanding of the job’s requirements and long hours, but the character only exists as a device to turn the gears of the convoluted plot, never developing beyond the cinematic glass ceiling of “disapproving spouse.”
The technical aspects of the film feign elegance on the surface, but are just as vapid at their core as the written material. Sapped of richness and natural color, Michael Bay and photographer Howard Atherton shoot Miami in washed-out, burnt siennas and oranges, visually reproducing the humidity of the region and the sun’s irradiance, creating a visual desert to match the barrenness of the discourse. Alternately, interiors are shot in cool blue filters and muted greys, mirroring the sterility of the precinct and the psychological implications of the color itself (representing loyalty and stability). This artistic choice holds water when held against the relationship of the male leads, but does not couple well with the litany of civil rights infringements that occur in the field.
Flashes of flowing curtains and trickling water recur incessantly, shaping the sort of tacky visual motif that passes muster in a music video (where Bay cut his teeth), but feels tawdry and amateurish on the big screen. Unnatural camera motion and ground-level shooting perspective prove to be just as jarring, further besmirching the composition with rapid-fire tracking and impatient editing, effectively morphing the succession of images into an incomprehensible puddle of color.
Despite these glaring flaws, Bad Boys is actually one of the most subdued efforts in Michael Bay’s catalog, relying far more on performance and practical effects than expected for a director who plies his trade staging CGI battles between sentient sports cars. It even shows signs of restraint, waiting for the final reel to introduce his trademark arc shot and crash a garbage truck through an airplane hanger.
Fusing the raw materials of Bad Boys together must have been strenuous work and Bay is an undoubtedly talented filmmaker, but he desperately lacks finesse, favoring brute force over methodical pacing. What’s ironic is that this adherence to breakneck speed renders most of the explosive setpieces inert, resulting in a blur of displaced shots and tinnitus-inducing gunshot echo.
Bad Boys (Columbia Pictures, 1995)
Directed by Michael Bay
Written by George Gallo (story), Michael Barrie (screenplay), Jim Mulholland (screenplay) and Doug Richardson (screenplay)
Photographed by Howard Atherton