Bad Boys for Life has continued to rack up box office victories, proving to be both a critical and audience favorite. The third in the Bad Boys franchise, Bad Boys for Life reunites Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, but Bad Boys and Bad Boys 2’s director, Michael Bay, did not return for the third installment. Even though the directing team Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, credited as “Adil and Bilall,” helmed the franchise’s latest release, Michael Bay’s worldview and politics still dominate Bad Boys for Life’s plot and artistic sensibility.
Bad Boys for Life follows Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), two Miami narcotics detectives who are pursued by a mysterious figure from Mike’s past. As the story unfolds, the detectives discover that the wife of a former cartel leader is attempting to assassinate Mike and everyone involved with taking down the cartel. Joining the Bad Boys is an elite team of Miami officers called AMMO (Advanced Miami Metro Operations), which includes a younger, tech-savvy group of operatives.
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Though it’s true that Adil and Bilall do not direct exactly like Bay – their action sequences are somewhat more comprehensible and the plot contains a few rounded character arcs – Bay’s stamp is still all over Bad Boys for Life. Particularly in the film’s relationship to violence and sex, Bad Boys for Life apes Bay’s political and social outlook, one that is on full display in the first two Bad Boys movies.
Michael Bay Justifies Violence
Michael Bay’s action sequences are chaotic, explosive, and always shot with the same visual language: slow motion, 360 pans and majestic wide shots at magic hour. That Bay makes violence look cool isn’t unique in the action genre. The same could be said of the explosive and brutal sequences in Mad Max: Fury Road and the comic book stylings of The Avengers; wholesale murder looks balletic in John Wick. While Bay’s style is unique – there’s no fireball too large for a Michael Bay film – his goal is relatively common: to make his action scenes fun and spectacular.
What sets Bay’s use of violence apart from other action films is the stories he chooses to tell. His films’ visual veneration of violence is compounded by his plots, which never question violence as the normative solution to all of the characters’ problems. In the first two Bad Boys, there is no sense that Mike and Marcus might peacefully resolve the conflict, and the films catapult to the explosive third act without pause; Bad Boys 2 even ends with an invasion of Cuba. In 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, the diplomats are relegated to MacGuffins – unformed characters whom the heroic military officers must protect. His mockery of diplomacy carries over from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, in which the Obama administration futilely attempts to negotiate with the Decepticons.
Contrasted with Baby Driver, a film that has just as much spectacle and fun, but in which the main character actively resists violence throughout, the point becomes clear: Michael Bay’s films justify violence on a visual and character level. And his choice to make violence the only solution the characters consider is pervasive throughout his filmography.
Michael Bay Connects Violence to Sex and Masculinity
Michael Bay also thinks violence is sexy. The sexual allure of violence is primarily developed in his films’ visual language. Throughout his work, including the first two Bad Boys films, he shoots scantily clad women and explosions – and men looking at explosions – with the same lingering low-angle admiration. Even in his early work, Megan Fox’s Mikaela Banes in Transformers is shamelessly sexualized.
Paralleling violence and sex is not new, but in Bay’s films the sexiness of violence is expressly uncritical. Consider another film that explores the relationship between violence and sex, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. After Edie (Maria Bello) confirms her worst suspicions about her husband’s (Viggo Mortensen) past, the two engage in rough and almost-grotesque sex on a staircase that contrasts with the mutual, playful love-making during the film’s first act. Afterwards, Edie pushes her husband away, and in the following scene, she slams the bathroom door closed behind her, leaving her husband with the realization that despite their coupling, their marriage is forever damaged by his violent past. For a brief moment in Cronenberg’s film, violence was indeed sexy, but not in a lasting way.
Contrast this treatment of violence and sex with the interaction between Two (Mélanie Laurent) and Three (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) in 6 Underground. In Bay’s most recent film, the sex scene immediately follows an action sequence, and their coupling, absent any set-up in the film’s plot, seems more like a celebration than an advancement of their characters’ arcs.
In Michael Bay’s films, violence is how men prove themselves to women. It’s how they demonstrate their worth. It’s no accident that when the heroes of 6 Underground drive through the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, they pause the film’s action to make fun of Michelangelo’s David’s penis. This continues in the first two Bad Boys films, where Marcus, the “beta male action hero” and the one always slightly behind and shorter than Mike, is the butt of emasculating jokes about his sex life – a line of humor that Bad Boys for Life repeats.
Bad Boys for Life Follows All of Michael Bay’s Rules
In two separate set-ups to character arcs in Bad Boys for Life, there’s the possibility that Adil and Bilall might break with Bay’s ideas about violence. At the end of the first act, after Mike has been shot and his life is in the balance, Marcus prays for Mike’s full recovery, making a deal with God that Marcus will “put no more violence into this world” if Mike is spared. Of course, Mike recovers from his wounds, and Marcus spends the second act resisting the use of violence. One of the members of AMMO, Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), is a sworn pacifist, and there are allusions to a violent trauma that relegated Dorn to being the “tech guy.” By the end of the film, both characters get over their pesky anti-violence ways. Marcus and Dorn join Mike in the film’s climax, both wielding guns and killing “bad guys” during the film’s explosive conclusion.
During his prayer, Marcus says, “I know ‘thou shalt not kill,’ but they were bad guys – all of them.” Likewise, when Mike convinces Marcus to give up his pacifistic pact, one of his arguments is that there is no other choice. For his part, Dorn will simply require more therapy to get over his violent relapse – a line that is played for comedy. All of this perfectly fits Bay’s worldview. Not only is violence cool, but there is no other way to solve problems.
The main characters don’t have many romantic entanglements in Bad Boys for Life, but Marcus does lament his sexual inadequacy, pausing the film’s narrative to report that he hasn’t had sex in a long time. At the film’s end, he is seemingly rewarded, reporting that he and his wife have had sex following his work in Mexico during the film’s violent climax. There is also an underlying sexual tension between Mike and AMMO’s leader, Rita (Paola Nuñez). Before they go after one of the film’s antagonists, Mike says, “That’s not an undercover dress. You should’ve worn something … undercover.” The film once again treats sexual relationships as rewards when she coyly replies, “Happy birthday.” Sex as a reward differs only in degree, but not in kind, to the way Bay treats sex in his oeuvre.
Audiences expect violence in action films, so the simple existence of violent characters is not surprising. But when the film introduces violence as an essential element of the characters’ arcs and a primary attribute of their attractiveness, Bad Boys for Life is then required to justify violence, which gets into tricky ethical territory. It would have been a creative challenge to allow Marcus and Dorn to be useful in the third act while remaining non-violent, but this was not a challenge Adil and Bilall accepted. Their characters renounced their non-violent oaths – just as Michael Bay would have liked it.
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