Bad Boys: Ride or Die has a troubling case of franchise cancer

Martin Lawrence as Marcus Burnett yelling as he wields two guns in the club in Bad Boys: Ride or Die
Photo: Frank Masi/Columbia Pictures

They’re Bad Boys for life, not Bad Boys for lore

Cancer is often described in layman’s terms as the body’s cells performing their function, just without any of the biological checks and balances that keep them from interfering with or overtaking one another. I’ve found it a useful metaphor for franchise cinema lately, and what can happen when it goes wrong: A film’s franchise elements metastasize and overtake a movie, trying to reinforce intellectual property at every turn, refusing to let a scene go by without some kind of callback, meta joke, or attempt to make fetch happen.

Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the fourth in the series of buddy-cop movies Michael Bay originated in 1995, seems like an unlikely victim of franchise cancer. The pleasure of a Bad Boys movie — as much as that can be discerned from a film series with a decade or more between previous entries — mostly comes from watching its two uniquely gifted comedic leads, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, engaging in antics under the direction of some of cinema’s foremost explosion-lovers. But in Ride or Die, the joys of Smith and Lawrence’s characters getting on each other’s nerves during improbably explosive shootouts is constantly derailed, as the script workshops or retcons every previous element from prior movies into the grand scheme of this one.

Bad Boys for Life’s Belgian directing duo, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Ms. Marvel) return for Ride or Die, which immediately follows the previous film. Detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are still trigger-happy Miami narcotics cops who play by their own rules. But they’ve got more backing these days, from AMMO support-squad members Kelly and Dorn (returning cast members Vanessa Hudgens and Alexander Ludwig), and their immediate boss, Lt. Rita Secada (Paola Núñez). They also get lots of reminders to slow down. Mike, the looser of the two loose cannons, is finally settling down and getting married, while Marcus has a near-death experience that has everyone telling him to diet and chill out. Unfortunately, it just makes him think he’s invincible.

Will Smith sits in the passenger seat as Martin Lawrence drives as the two laugh in a scene from Bad Boys: Ride or Die.
Photo: Frank Masi/Columbia Pictures

This time around, the partners discover a conspiracy to tarnish the reputation of their late captain, Conrad Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who died in Bad Boys for Life. In their efforts to clear their former boss’s name, the two are framed as co-conspirators and must go on the run. It is perhaps the first, and most aggravating, failing of Ride or Die that nearly an hour of the movie’s 115-minute run time elapses before this — the central premise of the film! — actually happens. The second is all the aforementioned franchise cancer.

Ride or Die does not pass up a single opportunity to underline that this is a Bad Boys movie full of Bad Boys things. That conspiracy to frame Capt. Conrad? It’s tied to the case at the center of Bad Boys II. A vital clue for who’s behind it comes from Fletcher (John Salley), who you likely won’t recognize unless you’ve recently seen the first two films. “Bad Boys,” the 1987 Inner Circle hit made famous by the TV show Cops and adopted as the movie franchise’s theme song? You’ll hear no less than three versions of it. What’s more, Mike and Marcus sing it twice, and people constantly call them “the Bad Boys” as if they are the X-Men.

All of which makes Ride or Die feel like a less successful version of Fast Five. That film took what was at the time a series of four tonally distinct, loosely connected Fast & Furious films and willed them into a coherent franchise with some timeline shenanigans and heaps of charisma. The Bad Boys movies, however, do not have as much raw material to fashion into a modern engine of perpetual cinema. They have Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and one very good callback involving Marcus’ son-in-law, Reggie (Dennis Greene). That’s about it.

Detective Marcus Burnett lies in SWAT gear against cover as an equally kitted-out Mike Lowrey gives him a pep talk in Bad Boys: Ride or Die
Photo: Frank Masi/Columbia Pictures

Most of the fault can arguably be laid at the feet of Chris Bremner and Will Beall’s script, which is poorly paced and chock-full of clichés. (It’s kind of hard to keep your composure when Joe Pantoliano, in a pitch-perfect imitation of Princess Leia Organa, leaves the Bad Boys a recorded message calling them “my only hope.”) Smith and Lawrence gamely deliver some pretty terrible jokes, and the supporting cast that returns from Bad Boys for Life is sturdy enough for government work, even while working with such uninspired material.

El Arbi and Fallah’s direction is the brightest aspect of Ride or Die. The pair has leveled up since Bad Boys for Life, showing themselves as eager students of Bayhem, happy to deploy camera work as exciting as the shootouts it captures. Frenetic drone shots zoom through gunfire, cameras pivot over the barrel of a gun, and nothing ever, ever stays still. It’s a bit overwhelming: Restrained compared to Bay in their previous effort, they overreach a bit here. Their action shines brightest when it features someone capable of believably kicking ass on screen, like Jacob Scipio, returning as Mike Lowrey’s long-lost son from Bad Boys for Life.

However, the over-the-top shenanigans are all in the service of retrofitting a sprawling franchise over a handful of movies that were never really about strong narrative ties. This is all the more frustrating given the few moments that do get what the Bad Boys movies are about. Like, for example, the third-act shootout where Mike is at his lowest, and it’s on Marcus to motivate him — by shouting the lyrics of Run-DMC’s “Peter Piper” at him.

This is the Bad Boys franchise operating as it should. It doesn’t need constant callbacks building out an elaborate mythology. It just needs two charismatic guys dishing out jokes of varying quality. It needs an irresponsible amount of gunfire. And it needs hell-yeah moments like this one, where Martin Lawrence yells that he needs a “big bad wolf in the neighborhood,” and the audience can yell “Not bad meaning BAD, but bad meaning GOOD” right back.

Bad Boys: Ride or Die premieres in theaters Friday, June 7.

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