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The Importance of Bad Boys: Ride or Die

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BAD BOYS: RIDE OR DIE. I was prepared to blame prevailing global conditions as much as my own skepticism for sleeping on Bad Boys for Life (2020) as long as I did. In sitting to revisit the franchise and attempt to organize my thoughts about it, though, I discovered that I could not, in fact, attribute my truancy to the pandemic. No, it was long months before, when some of us thought the world might end for entirely different reasons, that chapter three in the saga of detectives Lowery (Will Smith) and Burnett (Martin Lawrence) took its bow.

And so we must defer only to my own bad attitude about the integrity of a sequel so many years on and in the hands of unknown (to me) directors, with aging stars whose recent performances had been underwhelming, to explain my not having seen the thing until almost four years later. When I finally did, though, I was welcomed back into the hyper-stylized, foul-mouthed, cordite-tinged world of an invented Miami I had once known and loved so well. (The DVDs of Bad Boys, 1995, and Bad Boys II, 2003, look down on me from the shelf as I type.) As such, I was forced to examine my own shifting, misplaced attitudes about something that had, for years, brought me something like joy.

As with so many objects of fascination found in youth, maturation can prove a corrosive and complicating influence. The aphorism that one must put aside childish things, even if we strain to disbelieve it, is reinforced by the daily rigors of "growing up" and many of us mistakenly, in our attempts to evolve a sense of art and self and the world, conflate simple enjoyment with simple-mindedness. In that middle period, the thrashing that precedes the calm of beginning to not give a damn about the aesthetic opinions of culture at large, it can be all too easy to conflate complexity or thematic heaviness with importance. It's the trainwreck of outside influence and the self, and it can apparently take a lifetime to sift through the wreckage, much less undo the damage.

Quite a bit of pseudo-academic posturing and philosophical gymnastics in service of a bunch of movies about ultra-violent cops. But there is something about the continued life of the Bad Boys canon, about the rediscovery of visceral thrills and vertiginous camera work, that grounds the movies in freedom of simple pleasures, but also continues to elevate the form. Maybe big, dumb movies, well-executed, support an ecosystem that makes room for small, smart ones.

One of the many knotty roots of this conundrum, of course, is the 800-pound gorilla of big dumb movies done well: Michael Bay. As much pleasure as we all derived from his early work (Bad Boys chief among them), his increasingly grody public persona, the accounts of his not-so casual misogyny and the overbearing self-seriousness of his middle and late periods has quickly begun to overshadow it. It has become, I think, a toxic rite of passage for film bros to recoil from and then re-embrace Bay and his movies, but there's not enough space to wade into that swamp here. My feelings remain complicated but I must admit that Bay, as a stylist, did as much to define the American cinema of the modern era as anybody. Springing, as so many directors did, from the music video generation, Bay invented a visual language that has been as frequently cribbed and shaded as Spielberg's lens-flares, Tarantino's speeches and Meyers' kitchens. He's problematic and egocentric; what could better define American movies?

And who better to interpret his influence than a couple of Belgians (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah) who grew up on it. The directing duo have found a way, with drones aplenty, to carry the Bay torch without simply copying the moves and, through the cosmic luck of high finance, have been able to do it with the full cooperation of Smith (did I say problematic?) and Lawrence.

To be clear, there are limits to this apologia. The plots of Bad Boys movies are not and have never been particularly burdened by sophistication, nor have the characters been particularly susceptible to change. As case in point, the entire tone and arc of Ride or Die are pretty much laid out in the trailer. But we're not really showing up for surprises in this case, are we? I should hope not. For those who have or will, I don't understand but I hope your disappointment might be tempered by the old-school, grand-scale silliness of what you saw. Sure, the climax isn't quite as climactic as it could be (just like the last time out), but it may be part of the pleasure of the enterprise that it can actually leave us wanting more, at least more than it makes us want to leave. R. 115M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.

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