When mayhem is all that matters

Times Staff Writer

A mind-boggling, nerve-numbing, adrenaline-pumping combination of shock-and-awe brilliance and idiocy from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Michael Bay and credited writers Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl, the new cop thriller “Bad Boys II” doesn’t just raise the bar on movie action -- it pulverizes the bar, along with most of your senses. Resistance may be desirable, especially for the politically squeamish, but for dedicated action freaks it’s futile.

Like the 1995 hit “Bad Boys,” the sequel stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Miami detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, who are as famous for literally tearing up the town as for collecting high-profile collars. Friends since high school, the pair has the sort of intimate, playfully hectoring relationship that’s familiar from most two-hander cop movies, as well as the usual character lifestyle specifications. Marcus is the family man (a wife, three kids, a slobbering dog) and something of an embittered clown, while Mike is the resident stud, the rich kid with the babe-bait moves, designer threads and high-performance cars. The added bonus is that he’s now played by a genuine movie star.

“Bad Boy II” opens in Amsterdam, then hopscotches to the U.S for a tip of the director’s cap to one of Bay’s signature influences, Michael Mann. As the camera swoops over the water and heads for the jewel-like Miami, effulgent with lights and decadence, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re about to watch an episode of Mann’s landmark series “Miami Vice.” And at least initially that’s how the film plays out via a blend of hyperbolic violence, sexual titillation and consumer-savvy multiculturalism -- every villainous Latino has his virtuous twin -- tucked inside a city that’s little more than an adults-only playground throbbing with the evil that men do. (Albeit a really long episode because the film runs on -- and on -- for 144 minutes.)


After the regulation homage, the action turns to a police task force on the verge of a major bust. A caucus of muscle and tattoo, the cops are led by punk veteran Henry Rollins, which instantly establishes that we are not in generic Hollywood anymore but a fantasyland known as Bruckheimer-ville. Mounted for maximum impact, the producer’s films rarely work in the register of the real, which accounts for their success as well as the fact that -- as a rule -- they’re beyond causing serious offense. With the likes of Lawrence and Rollins as cops, after all, it doesn’t seem farfetched that the film’s first big set piece unfolds in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally, complete with a burning cross and extras who look as if they should be picking banjos in “Deliverance.”

Smith emerges from this redneck nightmare with each hand wrapped around a gun and the camera gazing up at him from somewhere around his feet. The worshipful vantage and swirling smoke are pure John Woo as is the character’s fondness for two-fisted gunplay. Mayhem ensues, delivered with the usual Bay touchstones -- bullets tear through the air, bodies scatter like confetti, sometimes in slow motion, although most everything else happens very fast. It’s only after the gun smoke clears that a plot emerges involving a Cuban drug lord (a wild-eyed Jordi Molla) and a Russian mobster (reliable baddie Peter Stormare) who are putting Ecstasy on the streets and sending millions of dollars out of the country. Politically expedient villains, the two are bad to the bone and given to Grand Guignol butchery.

There’s a little more by way of a story, including a tepid romance between Mike and Marcus’ baby sister (Gabrielle Union), a Drug Enforcement Administration agent hot on the same case as her brother and his partner. Ludicrous coincidences are standard in Bruckheimer-ville, part of its commitment to unreality. For all the script’s jokes about anger management, what counts isn’t the human factor but spectacle, relentless action and the head rush that comes when stuff goes bang. That’s never clearer than with a demolition-derby freeway chase with dozens of real cars, a very large truck and only a few sleights of hand. Trumping every roadway spree in recent memory, the chase confirms that even the most sophisticated digital imagery can’t compare with crunching fiberglass -- and that Bay is at his best when his cameras are pointing away from the actors.

Not that Smith doesn’t fit the action-hero profile. He received second billing in the first movie, but in the wake of several hits and one Academy Award nomination, it’s now all about him. The modern action hero comes in all registers, from the warmly comic Jackie Chan to the machine-tooled Arnold Schwarzenegger, but to be affecting there must be some human quality we recognize in ourselves. Smith holds the screen like a star, shifting from hero to everyman as casually as if he were changing shirts. But no matter how fiercely he wields his gun, there’s something approachable about the actor. With a body built for action and a smile made for comedy, Smith eases through his scenes -- cool but never scary, a touch hip-hop and thoroughly audience-friendly. And unlike Lawrence, he can act.

Smith’s ability to put over a scene, combined with his matinee charm, goes a long way to making the film’s violence palatable. His delivery, with its “no worries” undertone, takes the sting out of the shootings, the explosions, even the fast-multiplying dead bodies, at least until the final 45 minutes when the movie spins out of control. In any other film, the freeway derby would serve as a big-enough finale, but “Bad Boys II” leads with that chase, then adds three more. The topper, set in Cuba, involves a candy-yellow Hummer plowing through dozens of tin shanties. Conscious or not -- and the guys who made this movie aren’t dummies -- this image of First World domination as a theme-park ride is a humdinger, but it’s also revolting considering that such shacks are home to the poor.

Smith remains untainted by Mike’s destruction. He even puts a pleasant spin on the proceedings when Mike orders Marcus to fire first and read the victim’s rights second, demanding that his partner simply “shoot somebody.” (He does.) The movie, however, proves less Teflon-coated. Shelton, a filmmaker with a firm grasp on macho violence, cooked up the story with Marianne Wibberley and Cormac Wibberley, screenwriters whose cartoon sensibilities are in evidence in “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” Bruckheimer likes to use truckloads of writers, and it’s entirely possible that Shelton and Stahl aren’t the only parties responsible for this film’s glib assaults on civil liberties and a vision of Cuba that’s as plausible as, well, Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Then again, they’re also the only writers with screen credit.

If these qualms about the movie’s violence seem to contradict my earlier insistence that “Bad Boys II” and other Bruckheimer blowouts like it aren’t real, that’s exactly right. That love them-hate them split is central to the strange appeal of Bruckheimer’s movies, which are as irresistible and compulsively watchable as they are often infuriating. There’s no denying the producer is a great showman, just as there’s no denying that under his sponsorship, Bay has evolved into one of the most important action directors working today. Along with Woo, Bay has done more to change the look, the pace, the vibe and even the way space is organized within the frame than anyone else working in the genre. I’m not sure if he’s any good, but like his producer he’s some kind of genius.


‘Bad Boys ll’

MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and action, pervasive language, sexuality and drug content.

Times guidelines: Extreme violence, extreme gore, extreme language, some drug use.

Martin Lawrence...Marcus Burnett

Will Smith...Mike Lowrey

Jordi Molla...Hector Juan Carlos

“Johnny” Tapia

Gabrielle Union...Sydney “Syd”


Peter Stormare...Alexei

Columbia Pictures presents a Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Michael Bay. Writers Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl. Story by Marianne Wibberley, Cormac Wibberley, Ron Shelton. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Director of photography Amir Mokri. Production designer Dominic Watkins. Editors Mark Goldblatt, Thomas A. Muldoon, Roger Barton. Additional music Dr. Dre. Score Trevor Rabin. Music supervision Kathy Nelson, Bob Badami. Costume designers Deborah L. Scott, Carol Ramsey. Casting Billy Hopkins, Suzanne Smith, Kerry Barden. Running time: 2 hours, 24 minutes.

In general release.