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The Independent Critic

Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Paola Nunez, Eric Dane, Ioan Gruffud, Tiffany Haddish, Joe Pantoliano
Adil El Arbi, Billal Fallah
Chris Bremner
Rated R
115 Mins.
Columbia Pictures

 Movie Review: Bad Boys: Ride or Die 
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Is America ready to forgive Will Smith?

Bad Boys: Ride or Die may very give us the answer. It doesn't so much matter whether or not Bad Boys: Ride or Die is good, though it is far more entertaining than anyone would have expected four films in to the franchise. Instead, what really matters is whether or not audiences show up to check out Smith's return to franchise filmmaking after laying low for over a year after his Chris Rock Oscar awards smackdown. 

My guess? America is ready to move on. 

That also appears to be true for co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, whose Batgirl was shelved in corporate silliness and who are now on a bit of their own redemption tour. Ride or Die infuses itself with a Fast & Furious vibe that started in the last film. While the approach isn't entirely successful, this four decade spanning franchise still manages to find quite a bit of life and the chemistry between co-stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is as fun to watch as ever. 

In Bad Boys: Ride or Die, Detective Lowrey (Smith) is calming down his playboy ways and settling down with his therapist, Christine (Melanie Liburd). While I will confess I find the whole "marrying the therapist" narrative distasteful, it's a minor point here and consistent with the franchise's history. However, as he goes from having nothing to lose to suddenly having something  to lose our previously free-spirited Lowrey suddenly becomes more anxiety-ridden and even reflective. When longtime buddy Burnett (Lawrence) has a health scare, just the opposite happens. The end result for Ride or Die is that Smith has the quieter and more serious role this time around with Lawrence carrying more of the heavy comic lifting. The two are drawn back together when an inside effort is made to frame the now deceased Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) as a collaborator with the cartel and the framing swoops in both Lowrey and Burnett. 

Add in some Bad Boy familiars and we're headed toward a bit of a redemption tour with both Smith and Lawrence clearly relishing the opportunity to work together once again and the film seriously amping up the high-octane, beautifully stylized action sequences. Adil and 

On the directorial front, Bad Boys 4 is to Bad Boys 3 what Bad Boys II was to the original Bad Boys. Like Michael Bay, Adil and Bilall have made an exponential leap in terms of scale when it comes to the action set pieces; Bad Boys: Ride or Die plays like more of a Mission: Impossible film if it were set entirely in one city. There are car chases, shootouts, a helicopter battle, and other little action beats throughout the film – and some of them are constructed in truly novel and thrilling ways on par with a John Wick flick. But it's never too serious, with Adil and Bilall invoking (in the best way) the 2010s director team Neveldine and Taylor (Crank) with their willingness to try wild camera concepts and angles. Whether it's prolonged close-ups during dialogue and banter, or some video-game-style POV during a final action sequence, there's an ambitious visual novelty to the film that keeps it looking fresh and fun for action fans. 

Better yet, Adil, Bilall, and screenwriters Chris Bremmer and Will Beall (Training Day) understand that by this fourth film, Bad Boys has a whole world and mythology to it. Ride or Die pulls together story elements from all three previous films to "reveal" a secret conspiracy that's been unfolding all along, and the serious emotional beats of those films are re-examined according to the cumulative weight of living violent lives. There's an actual beating heart to this story of aging men coming to terms with mortality, while tallying the spiritual value of their lives, connections, and legacy, in hopes of earning the word "wiser" in conjunction with getting "older." 

The directors have such a firm hold on the reins of this franchise world that even bit characters from previous films are brought back and given updated arcs that pay off all four decades of this series run. Most of the supporting characters and story threads from Bad Boys for Life are also brought back, and they continue to develop in perfect step alongside Mike and Marcus. That goes for AMMO squad members Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), and Captain Rita Secada (Paola Nunez), as well as the members of Marcus's family, and various criminals Lowrey and Burnett used as sources. There are also some familiar faces who join the franchise (like the scary new villain played by Eric Dane) or some celeb cameos that will have fans laughing and buzzing online. 

Bad Boys: Ride or Die plays like a confident step forward for a re-invigorated franchise, rather than the last bits of gas leaking out of a dying one. It proves that Will Smith and Martin Lawrence can keep driving with characters forward – no matter what life and age bring their way – and it's still some of the most fun movie audiences can have, riding along with them. And it's a good ride – all the way to a gut-busting ending. 

Ride or Die becomes encumbered with lore in ways a buddy-action romp should not. Notwithstanding the recurrence of a few key characters, the leap from Bad Boys to Bad Boys II was born from a bygone, less-labyrinthian model for action sequels: they’d get bigger, longer, and maybe a little dumber, but you could largely digest them on their own terms. Now even the best action franchises require you’ve seen at least three previous entries or watch a lengthy YouTube recap to keep you up to speed. Mike and Marcus have suffered the same fate. There is an overall inflation here that plagues most legacy IPs––the kind that turns a punchline about Skittles into an eye-rolling gag twenty years later. Some simple character beats are emphasized into nearly maudlin bombast. There are jokes that land well, but Martin Lawrence has devolved into a pratfalling buffoon; deeply unfortunate for someone who was once billed ahead of Will Smith for half this franchise. Smith’s natural presence as a movie star––still on display––is undercut by the film’s unavoidable meta-narrative around his very public downfall. Lowrey is shaken, haunted by choices that have convinced him he’ll only let everyone close to him down when it matters most. Any attempt to pivot him into a wounded old hotshot à la The Color of Money or Top Gun: Maverick are so explicitly manufactured that he may be forever indebted to Lawrence for going full bozo in order to prop him up.

Though a star rehabilitation vehicle may be the frame of Bad Boys: Ride or Die, it’s the action that fuels it, and the outcome is a solidly entertaining director-reel-of-sorts. Teeming with influences and toying with subgenres, Adil and Bilal unabashedly flaunt to studios that they can do it all. Beyond cribbing Michael Bay’s insane Ambulance drone work, the duo treat us to a helicopter crash ripped from Mission: Impossible and a Gun-Fu home invasion out of John Wick. You could steal from worse, and with a kitchen-sink mentality they steal it all incredibly well. Even Jurassic Park and Star Wars appear on this audition tape––all in just under two hours! It’s a bit madcap, motley, stupid––hardly more than any recent output in the genre. Often in spite of itself, Bad Boys: Ride or Die achieves the kind of beat-the-heat blockbuster comfort it sets its sights on, if only to tease you with the vast potential of the filmmakers behind it.