Review: Bad Boys (1995)

What a trashy movie, and yet, however much the incessant lustiness of the characters rankled me, I cannot dismiss Bad Boys. This was Michael Bay’s feature debut and it confidently demonstrates so much of what has made him one of Hollywood’s most powerful directors. It shows his appetite for garish materialism, for macho displays of affection, for women as victimized sex kittens, and for the solving of problems by confident men with big guns. It also demonstrates what an immensely talented filmmaker he is.

There are visual flourishes here that most filmmakers cannot accomplish even now in the age of weightless cameras and digital trickery. That Bay manages to create a new visual language for Hollywood action cinema given the materials he is working with (building on contemporaries such as Tony Scott and using conventional filming tools) is no small feat. It’s then only too bad that the story he lends his formal chops to is so incomprehensible and the worldview so vulgar. Bad Boys is trash, but what lucious trash it is.

Bad Boys follows detectives Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) as they work to find the culprit behind a theft of seized heroin from a police vault. In the midst of their investigation, they get saddled with Julie Mott (Téa Leoni), who witnessed a murder connected to their prime suspect. The plot involves dirty cops, mistaken identities, and convoluted plot twists involving throwaway characters from the early scenes. There’s also a long-running joke about Julie mistaking family-man Marcus for playboy Mike that provides motivation for Marcus playing up his lustiest impulses. The entire thing is played for shits-and-giggles, as if Michael Bay and writers Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, and Doug Richardson had watched and loved Lethal Weapon, but thought that the characters weren’t slimy enough and the plot too coherent.

Bay has no real interest in plot, which explains why the motivations of the villains are incomprehensible throughout. The film’s narrative is mostly a means to explore visual space and imagine new ways to blow things up and have men look cool doing it.  But to be fair, there are a few things of interest in how the story is formulated.

Chief among these things is that Will Smith is the sidekick here, letting Martin Lawrence command the narrative and become the audience surrogate. And surprisingly, Lawrence is a versatile hero, alternating between snarky and relatively vulnerable throughout the runtime. Bad Boys might be the most successful demonstration of Martin Lawrence’s appeal as an actor. He also plays Marcus as someone who’s used to being belittled and trod upon, as if he were the nerd in high school. He may wear a badge, but his machismo is an act, and his nerdy vulnerability is his truer self—and the personality trait that is a greater attribute to winning in the end. (It’s fascinating to note that the notoriously macho Michael Bay’s favourite type of hero is the sensitive nerdy everyman who embraces his inner jock to save the day.)

The primary appeal of Bad Boys is its formal innovation. Michael Bay might have an active distaste for narrative structure, but he does revel in imagery. Only a few minutes into Bad Boys, Bay establishes a clear visual language defined by low-angles meant to empower the heroes and a constantly moving camera that perpetuates momentum. And I mean constantly moving. There are roving cameras in cinema, and then there are Michael Bay cameras, which seem eternally propelled by jet fuel. In the opening heist scene, Bay’s camera thrusts in on padlocks and circular pans beneath smokestacks. There’s even a luge-like escape vehicle meant to traverse the piping of the vault, which allows Bay to barrel his camera forward at impossible speeds.

At other times in the film, if a character talks on the phone, the camera will dolly a half-circle around him at great speed, panning across the plane of action in the process. Bay’s camera is obviously influenced by his hyperactivity, but his formal style is not aimless, even if it’s kinetic. If the character motivations and structures of his film are lax, at least his images are well-defined. In fact, Bay is so confident with his imagery, he essentially defines the visual language of action cinema for the next two decades. The film’s overwhelming blue and orange colour scheme—appropriate to the Miami setting—became the go-to colour scheme of the action blockbuster, and the visual combination of slo-mo, low angles, and relentless forward momentum has been emulated by everyone from J.J. Abrams to Justin Lin to the directors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Bad Boys is not an exercise in empty formalism, nor is it formless trash. It’s kinetic filmmaking with the clear purpose of providing an adrenaline rush, a coherent (if vulgar) worldview informing it, and a skilled filmmaker composing it. That it’s not exactly tasteful is almost beside the point. It is effective and it is influential. We live in a world defined by its excesses.

6 out of 10

Bad Boys (1995, USA)

Directed by Michael Bay; written by Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, Doug Richardson; starring Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Téa Leoni, Tchéky Karyo, Theresa Randle, Joe Pantoliano.