People like to rag on Michael Bay a lot, but most forget he has a few gems amongst the over bloated messes in his filmography. Quite frankly, I believe his first movie was his best, and that is indeed Bad Boys. Burdened with a really bad script written for a Dana Carvey / Jon Lovitz comedy vehicle, Bay relied heavily on the comedic smarts and chemistry of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith to salvage it with extensive improvisation. What he got was an exceptionally well made, tightly paced, and sharply stylized charismatic action hit.
One hundred million dollars worth of confiscated heroin has just been jacked from police custody. Once the career bust of Detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence), the missing drugs now threaten to shut down the narcotics division of the Miami Police Department. The thieves turn deadly when they murder one of their own, a once crooked cop, and Maxine, a beautiful call girl who was a close friend of Mike’s. Now, the only witness to this double murder and the link to recovering the dope is Maxine’s friend Julie (Téa Leoni), who must come under the protective custody of Lowery and Burnett before these criminals eliminate her permanently.
What really grabs me about Bad Boys is how sharp and funny Lawrence and Smith are. These two have excellent chemistry that would be hard to constrain, but I think Bay had himself in sync with these two. He directed their banter down the right line which wholly fits their characters, and never allows it to go on a wild tangent. I like the quick scenes early on that just have them trading comedic blows, but it serves a purpose to build the characters and establish their relationship. The opening scene is a big favorite of mine. This is Michael Bay focused and driven to deliver something impressive. He had something to prove in his directorial debut, and the script he had was so horrible even he called it a “piece of shit.” I only wish he still had those standards today. So, it was a lot of pressure making Bad Boys, but he surrounded himself in extremely talented individuals like Smith and Lawrence along with two blockbuster producers to make this a success.
This has all the hallmarks of a Don Simpson / Jerry Bruckheimer production. It’s slick, stylish, fresh, and exciting. I miss the time where producers like them or even Joel Silver alone influenced the quality and style of the movies. They were as big of a mark of quality as the right director. Bay’s style is also evident here with a lot of dynamic camera angles, beautiful dramatic lighting, and some gorgeous sweeping camera movements. Bay creates a very visually stunning work that energizes the movie, raising it up to a very high quality cinematic level. It absolutely has that 1990’s music video visual scope and beauty which was essentially originated and refined by Bay. There’s some elegant and artistic production designs throughout that just give it an extra flare of style that does feel very Miami. The film also has very tight editing keeping the story moving forward at a great clip. Unlike many later Michael Bay films, it doesn’t languish on indulgences in comedy and frivolousness. Yes, there are almost straight comedy bits in there, but they just add to the fun of the movie.
The dramatic aspects of the film are handled as amazingly as the comedy. There are several moments in the film where the impact of Maxine’s death reverberates and resonates. Bay gives it epic weight to propel the motivations forward for Julie and Mike. In many of Bay’s later films, those qualities are often drowned out by too much bad comedy or just poor characterizations. Here, he shows he knew how to do it right.
I know there are many who find Martin Lawrence irritating, to say the least. I can see that, but I just feel he does his best in this movie, especially when he has someone like Will Smith to work off of. Marcus Burnett is a guy with a lot of stresses on him from not getting his “quality time” at home, and the constant danger everyone keeps getting him into. The biggest being having to impersonate Mike for the sake of securing Julie, who trusts Lowery solely, and being forced to lie to his own wife about the arrangement. So, the wiseass quips and abrasive attitude are dead-on-the-mark. It also creates the classic buddy cop dynamic of conflicting personalities. Mike is smooth and competent while Marcus is more excitable and apprehensive.
Of course, Will Smith is charming and charismatic, but injects a lot of toughness and conviction into Mike Lowery. He’s not just a smooth player. He’s a dedicated, determined, wicked good cop that works situations with savvy and sharp aggression. Mike might be a rich kid with a comfortable lifestyle, but as he says he “pushes it to the max every day.” It’s a great dynamic between Burnett and Lowery, and this performance showed Will Smith to be a vastly marketable leading man and action capable actor. Proving that statement is the fact that his very next film was Independence Day.
Téa Leoni is really great. The panicked, emotionally unsettled part of her performance has a lot of weight and depth. Yet, she makes the transition to the lighter tone smoothly with really good chemistry with Lawrence. She becomes even more enjoyable when Julie figures out that Marcus is really Marcus, and not Mike. She plays around with him, and that just adds a little more intelligence to her. Most of all, Leoni creates a very sympathetic and likeable character.
While Joe Pantoliano portrays almost the stereotypical angry police Captain, he’s great at it. As always, he’s smart and funny. Captain Howard barks orders with the best of them, but you understand the stress he’s under. The biggest bust his department’s ever achieved is lost, and all of their jobs are on the line under a very tight timetable. He has to motivate his detectives to work fast and smart before all their time and luck has run out. So, Pantoliano has that relatable quality where his yelling never overshadows the consummate cop underneath.
Tchéky Karyo gives us a fairly good villain. If there’s any weak area of the film it’s not his performance, but Fouchet is not well developed. It’s rather generic, but Karyo elevates it to a higher level through his very good presence and subtle touches he puts into it. He can evoke a calm tension when he speaks softly, but can really punctuate greatly when the aggression is unleashed. If Fouchet was a stronger villain on the page, I think the film would feel like it has a beefier pay-off.
I absolutely adore Mark Mancina’s score. The main theme is beautiful and perfect with its slight Latin flavor, hip hop rhythm, rock electric guitar, and epic scale strings. It’s an inspired meshing of musical styles that feel just perfect. His overall work on this movie was big, heart pounding, and dramatic flowing perfectly with Michael Bay’s directorial style. The entire soundtrack just hits the right 90’s intensity and style all the way through.
If there’s one thing that I’ve never seen disputed about Michael Bay is that he knows how to do action sequences amazingly well. He really is a master of epic action using score and weighty slow motion shots to intensify every dangerous scenario. The entire climax is excellently done with plenty of explosive moments and greatly satisfying action. The final car chase is insanely intense with its great use of tight close-ups, tense, pounding music, and extremely tight editing. The violent, dramatic quality of it all is just masterful. This really does follow in the tradition of Tony Scott, but pushed to the next level. That is probably much due to the Simpson / Bruckheimer backing.
While the story is rather simple and straight forward, it is populated with a lot of fun. Bay keeps the mix of dramatic momentum and comedic wit appropriately balanced. The comedy might be in abundance here, but it never dilutes or dwarfs the dramatic urgency of the storyline. Both the comedy and action stick strongly in your mind after the film’s over. It all just blends together smoothly and smartly for a wildly entertaining and fun ride.
Bad Boys really set the tone for late 90’s action. Very polished and stylized cinematography, largely dramatic slow motion action, and just an epic feel all around. It launched the careers of Bay and Smith into the stratosphere as two the biggest blockbuster names around, and for good reason. While Bad Boys isn’t as big of an action movie as either of them or Simpson / Bruckheimer were involved with, it’s greatly fun, exciting, and spectacularly made. Sharp, smart, and beautifully shot, this vibrantly showed that there was talent here to harness. These days, I think Michael Bay could use some restraints and more focused vision like he had here. Even Bad Boys II came off a bit over bloated and self-indulgent by taking what was great in this first movie and amplifying it beyond what it needed to be. Still, if a third movie ever does eventually get made, I’m sure I’ll be game to give it a fair chance as you should definitely do for this movie, if you haven’t already.