Of all the sounds there are to hear in “Bad Boys for Life” — the crunch of bones, the screech of tires, the torrent of expletives, the reprise of an immortal Inner Circle theme song — perhaps the most unexpected is that of a voice lifted in prayer. Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) is fighting for his life, and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) finds himself in a hospital chapel, petitioning God on his partner and best friend’s behalf: “If you can find it in your heart to give him one more chance,” he begs, “I will put no more violence in this world.”
I have to admit, of all the spare parts from which “Bad Boys for Life” has been cobbled together, I wasn’t expecting Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.” From there, though, you can more or less guess what happens: There would be no movie if Mike didn’t get one more chance, just as there would be no movie if Marcus upheld his end of the bargain. Putting violence in this world is something the first two “Bad Boys” films, whatever you may think of them, did exceptionally well. And action junkies can rest assured that this stylish, derivative and fitfully fun third outing will at least give them their money’s worth in slashed throats, impaled torsos and bullet-riddled bodies.
Still, those early intimations of mortality do linger. For those who care about such things, there are flickers of genuine human feeling here, though you have to sift through a lot of baroque mayhem — drive-by shootings, burning helicopters and the like — to find them. Marcus’ occasional pangs of conscience aside, our Miami police-detective heroes are not terribly troubled by all the havoc they wreak in the name of the law. But here they could hardly be more aware of their own impermanence, or that of the rickety action-comedy franchise to which they belong.
A quarter-century has elapsed since the first “Bad Boys” (1995) marked the feature directing debut of a young music-video whiz named Michael Bay. That name — along with that of Bay’s frequent collaborator, mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer — would soon become synonymous with the Hollywood blockbuster at its most mind-numbingly vulgar. “Bad Boys II” (2003) was a model expression of that vulgarity, a bloated, cacophonous, 147-minute pileup that pushed the series into its decadent phase.
Seventeen years later and nearly half an hour shorter, “Bad Boys for Life” marks an attempt to both scale back and rev up, to acknowledge the franchise’s senescence while also proving it still has some life in its clotted veins. Bay, whose own career has seen better days (and who gets an amusing on-screen cameo here), has been replaced in the director’s chair by the Moroccan-born Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, billed as Adil & Bilall. They depart from their predecessor’s style in some ways — fans of Bay’s patented Oglevision will be disappointed by the lack of leering this time around — while lending the proceedings their own brand of rude, defiant energy.
The cinematography (by Robrecht Heyvaert) is a swirl of hot sun-bleached colors and cool purple nightscapes. The script (written by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan) is peppered with jokes about the indignities of growing older — from Marcus’ erectile dysfunction to Mike’s Midnight Cocoa Bean goatee dye — but it also makes clear that not everyone mellows with age. In that respect, our heroes are as much of an oil-and-water mismatch as they ever were. Marcus and his wife (Theresa Randle, reprising a thankless role) become grandparents in the opening scenes; Mike remains a smooth and unrepentant bachelor. Marcus opts for an early retirement; Mike feels betrayed and throws himself into the job with renewed vigor.
His target is an assassin named Armando (Jacob Scipio), who kills without hesitation or scruple on behalf of his even more twisted mother, Isabel (a terrifying Kate del Castillo), a Mexico City cartel leader recently sprung from behind bars. She clearly has some unfinished business with Mike, and an amicable resolution seems unlikely, given her dabbling in the dark arts and her talent for stashing corpses in washing machines.
The knowledge of what he’s up against spurs Mike to become even more of a poster boy for police brutality than usual, putting him at odds with his longtime superior, Capt. Howard (Joe Pantoliano, always welcome), as well as the team of tech-savvy, by-the-book millennials (Paola Nuñez, Vanessa Hudgens, Charles Melton and Alexander Ludwig) he’s forced to work with. “Bad Boys for Life” is awash in these intergenerational tensions and middle-aged anxieties, right up to a preposterous late twist that feels like something straight out of the telenovela some characters are shown watching.
Preposterousness, of course, is neither an anomaly nor a demerit in the “Bad Boys” universe, whose only logical constant is the resilient chemistry of its two stars. Although he played an assassin growing long in the tooth in last year’s misfire “Gemini Man” — a movie that would make a curious if not especially rewarding double bill with this one — Smith hurls himself into the fray with undiminished gusto. Goatee-dyeing jokes aside, the 51-year-old actor remains in such prime physical condition that you might start to wonder if Mike has a portrait of himself rotting away somewhere in his Miami penthouse.
Marcus, by contrast, has neither portrait nor penthouse, and Lawrence happily embraces his role here as the designated second banana. It’s harder than it looks: Lawrence doesn’t just steal scenes; he brings things back to earth, sometimes by expressing open contempt for the plot he’s mired in. His comic instincts are exactly what “Bad Boys for Life” needs as it tilts toward third-act grandiosity. Not to put more violence in the world, but he kills.
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
Playing: In general release