REVIEW: “Bad Boys for Life” (2020)

BBlifePOSTERFull disclaimer: I’ve never been all that high on the “Bad Boys” films (something followers of my site probably already know). I say that just so you understand, I wasn’t coming at this sequel with any kind of deep appreciation or nostalgia for the series. So maybe it’s no surprise that the third and probably not final installment “Bad Boys for Life” didn’t exactly knock my socks off.

Going in I was most curious about whether this new film would simply beat the same deafening drum as the painfully bad “Bad Boys II” or would it actually try to inject something fresh into the series? You certainly wouldn’t expect them to just throw aside the big action and comedy shtick that is such a key part of the series. But toning it down for the sake of better storytelling would be a welcomed treat. “Bad Boys for Life” is definitely toned down from part two and it to its credit it does attempt to add needed depth to its characters.

This time around the one noticeable absence (sort of) is Michael Bay. Replacing him is the Belgian directing duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah who must be into reviving old franchises (they are also set to bring back Beverly Hills Cop complete with Eddie Murphy). Some things haven’tchanged in the near 17 years since the last film. Mike Lowery (the now top-billed Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are still partners with the Miami PD. They still yell at each other constantly. And they still don’t know the words to their Bad Boys theme song.

But not everything is the same. Marcus is a new grandfather. Mike has broken up with Syd (see “Bad Boys II”. Better yet, don’t). And the police department have a new young state-of-the-art unit called AMMO led by one of Mike’s old flames Rita (Paola Núñez). Marcus is ready to retire and let the new generation take over. But Mike is still “ride or die” and doesn’t care for his partner’s desire to quit. But come on, who thought this would be a movie about retirement? When Mike is targeted by a violent someone from his past, the best friends get together “one last time“.

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Things start off on a strong note showing more heart than the previous two movies combined. And overall the movie avoids the nastiness of the last film even finding a way to apologize for one of BB2’s uglier scenes. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks in the central story to start showing. And despite Smith and Lawrence’s efforts, the movie loses steam as it limps towards a rather ludicrous story twist that could only come from the pages of a so-so movie script.

The action is pretty kill-by-the-numbers but it does bail the story out a times. And while Arbi and Fallah may not have Bay’s visual flair, they do create some high-energy (and controlled) sequences that the audience I watched with really enjoyed. Yes, you could call them silly and over-the-top, but that’s a target these movies have always aimed for and for the most part BB3’s action scenes hits their target.

“Bad Boys for Life” teases itself as the final chapter, the end of the trilogy, “one last time“. Don’t believe it, especially in today’s franchised obsessed movie culture. In fact the film’s title suddenly sounds like a studio promise more than the mantra of its two lead characters. And with sequel and spin-off rumors already running wild, this film comes across as a franchise building cash grab rather than a fitting send-off to a series that I may not like but that certainly has its fans.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Bad Boys II” (2003)

BB2posterIt’s amazing to see the difference between the Michael Bay of 1995’s “Bad Boys” and the Michael Bay of its sequel “Bad Boys II”. In the eight years between films the ever so slight restraint that made his directorial debut watchable had evaporated, replaced by the loud, bombastic, hyper-stylized filmmaking that Bay is still associated with today (look no further than his recent Netflix mindnumber “6 Underground”).

After the success of the first film Bay saw his budget jump from $19 million all the way to $130 million. That meant more action, bigger set pieces and a much higher body count. Unfortunately along with that came this ridiculous desire to amp up everything else as well resulting in a brain-deadening malaise bookended by two massive but admittedly impressive action sequences.

What passes for a story goes something like this. Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) are still Miami narcotics officers known best for the trail of mayhem they leave behind with every case. Marcus’ sister Syd (Gabrielle Union) gets tangled up with a Cuban drug kingpin named Johnny Tapia (Jordi Molla) while covertly working undercover for the DEA. Tapia is using a Russian gang to distribute souped-up Ecstasy onto the streets of Miami which brings Marcus and Mike into the mix.

Some meaningless side arcs prop up the story including Mike and Syd’s secret romance and Marcus second guessing his partnership with Mike. None of it really matters much. It’s all just means of moving towards the next big action scene or obnoxious comedy sketch. And there are a ton of obnoxious attempts at comedy. Aside from the incessant yelling between Lawrence and Smith, Bay along with co-writers Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl are at times offensively tone deaf with their ideas of ‘humor’.

Take where a 15-year-old boy comes to Marcus’ house to pick up his daughter for a first date. What follows is a nasty scene where Marcus and Mike intimidate the kid through demeaning questions and profane threats. At one point a gun is even pointed at the kid amid a slew of n-words and other obscenities. It goes on and on and is just a sample of the kind of stuff the filmmakers want us to laugh at. Other things they think are funny: ogling the bare breasts of a dead “bimbo“, animal sex between two rats. You get the idea.

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It’s not that I can’t handle irreverent humor. But when it’s this lowbrow and unfunny. And it doesn’t help that Bay had reached the point in his career where he doesn’t know when to let off the accelerator. So we just get more and more of it. It’s as if he was giving viewers a sneak peak at how he would be handling the Transformers franchise a few years down the road.

It’s really a shame because there are a couple of times when Bay’s excesses are pretty fun to watch. Take a wild early chase scene that takes a break to have a shootout before hopping onto a busy Miami freeway. It’s ten solid minutes of crazy, over-the-top action where Bay throws everything at the screen: an SUV, muscle cars, an 18-wheeler, a Ferrari, even a boat. It captures his knack for presenting stylish, high-energy action. And take another shootout featuring a clever revolving tracking shot. One of several interesting visual flourishes Bay uses.

The rest hinges on Lawrence and Smith’s chemistry which is still there. But much like the movie itself, even their performances feel more showy and self-absorbed. So all we have are a couple of fun, kinetic action sequences with two hours-plus of tasteless, grating indulgence crammed in between. “Bad Boys II” is brash, tawdry and completely full of itself. It makes for a noticeable step down from a movie that wasn’t all that great to begin with.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1-5-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Bad Boys” (1995)

BadposterLONGBy the time “Bad Boys” landed back in 1995 the buddy-cop movie had been done and done again. Throughout the 80s and early 90s countless movies like “48 Hrs” and “Lethal Weapon” had plowed the all-too-familiar ground multiple times each. The mixture of comedy and big action was a proven formula but for many people it had started to wear a bit thin.

“Bad Boys” is the kind of movie you would expect to be Michael Bay’s feature film directorial debut. It’s loud, silly, fast-paced and driven by two high-energy actors. But you can tell the soon-to-be action genre stalwart was still cutting his teeth. Bay had yet to fully embrace the bombast and relentless fever-pitched style that has become his signature to this very day. That makes “Bad Boys” a bearable watch but barely.

Successful sitcoms had put both Will Smith (“The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”) and Martin Lawrence (“Martin”) on the edge of superstardom. “Bad Boys” was the movie that pushed them over, especially Smith who would make the blockbuster hit “Independence Day” the very next year. Here the pair show off a lively chemistry and they clearly have a good time improvising while navigating a script that is at times mind-numbingly bad.

Stealing from numerous movies that came before it, “Bad Boys” sets itself in Miami where two narcotics detectives, the antsy family man Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) and the trigger-happy playboy Mike Lowrey (Smith), head the investigation into the theft of over $100 million worth of seized heroin from a local precinct. When Mike’s informant and former love interest is murdered by a French drug kingpin named Fouchet (Tchéky Karyo) the lone witness Julie (Téa Leoni) seeks out Mike for protection.

This leads to the biggest of several logic-defying storylines. After barely escaping with her life Julie calls the police station saying she’ll only speak to Mike who happens to be out. Marcus reluctantly poses as Mike to gain Julie’s trust but for some inexplicable reason continues the charade along with Mike for the majority of the movie. It’s a preposterous plot device whose only purpose seems to be setting up a ton of mediocre gags. Never mind that it makes no sense.

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“Bad Boys” isn’t ashamed of employing overused character tropes from the dogged Internal Affairs officer (Marg Helgenberger) who thinks it’s an inside job to the hot-tempered police captain (Joe Pantoliano) who is constantly barking at Marcus and Mike. And when it isn’t rehashing many of the genre’s greatest hits, it’s bombarding the screen with bullets and banter. Honestly that isn’t a bad thing. It diverts our attention from many of the screenplay’s shortcomings. And while the banter gets old, the action offers some needed thrills.

There is no denying “Bad Boys” resonated with many people. It brought home almost $150 million (not bad for an R-rated movie 25 years ago) and spawned two sequels (eventually) while catapulting the careers of its two stars and director. Through a mixture of charisma and testosterone Smith and Lawrence manage a handful of chuckles and a couple of decent action scenes. But their shtick eventually runs its course and the film ended up testing my tolerance for persistent high-volume yelling and shallow, unoriginal storytelling.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Bombshell”

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The story of the women from Fox News who stood up to and took down powerful CEO Roger Ailes is one worthy to be told. These women not only exposed Ailes’ abusive conduct towards them, but they also put a spotlight on workplace sexual harassment particularly in the world of television media. And if there is one thing we’ve learned since it’s that this industry-wide problem needed to be uncovered.

“Bombshell” (one of the most overused words in America’s current political landscape) sets out to tell the story of three woman (two real and one fictional) and their roles in bringing down Ailes. They are prime-time anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), morning show host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), and young producer/aspiring anchor Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).

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Ever since seeing the first full trailer I’ve had a lingering question: Was this going to be an empowering expose on sexual harassment or a Fox News hit-piece? “Bombshell” ends up somewhere in the middle which is frustrating. Too much time is wasted on frivolous pop-shots with no bite whatsoever. Take the seemingly endless parade of impersonations. Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, the list goes on and on. It results in these constant cartoonish diversions from what should be the real focus of the story.

This gets to my biggest beef: the movie is too interested in superfluous things to really dig below its rather familiar surface. It seems content to simply touch on the things we already know instead of pulling back the curtain to reveal something new and insightful. It’s a shame because the inspirational story of women rising up against a corporate media powerhouse like Ailes deserves more than a few strokes from a broad brush.

Despite being the catalyst for the case against Ailes, we get to a point where Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is more or less tossed to the back burner. Instead the film mostly focuses on Megyn Kelly as she wrestles with stepping out and giving some big-named support to Carlson’s claims. It’s uncanny how much Theron looks the part but her voice-work is a little more inconsistent. Sometimes you think it’s actually Kelly speaking while other times Theron sounds like she’s doing an impression with a head cold.

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A lot of time is also spent with Margot Robbie’s Kayla, a fictional/composite character who could best be described as a naive, sexually confused, Christian conservative (how’s that for covering all of your bases) who has long dreamed of working at Fox News. She becomes buddies with Kate McKinnon’s Jess, another fictional addition who has a deep, dark secret: she’s a closet Hillary Clinton supporter. Okay, so she actually has a bigger secret but it feels completely tacked-on and it’s used in the shallowest of ways.

Of course everyone answers to Roger Ailes who basically pulls all the strings and has a direct line to every control room in the building. He’s played by an entertaining John Lithgow who is full of bile and bluster. But for the most part he’s a fairly one-note character with teases of complexity but not much more. It’s another side effect of the movie’s compulsion to put its focus elsewhere instead of digging into its key characters.

The scattershot script is from Charles Randolph who co-wrote “The Big Short”. Here he and director Jay Roach recycle a lot of the visual pomp and style from that film and others like it: snappy narration, breaking the fourth wall, and so on. It’s an approach that simply doesn’t feel fresh anymore and it makes it even tougher to take the film seriously. Sometimes a movie is better off without all of the extra flash. Especially with a subject like this that deserves the extra attention.

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Instead we get 15 to 20 minutes on Donald Trump and his Twitter squabble with Kelly during the 2016 presidential primaries. We get a one-dimensional, undercooked fictional character who is given considerably more time than the woman who actually jump-started the whole thing. And of course there is the steady procession of performers appearing as Fox personalities whether they have anything meaningful to offer the story or not.

So we end up with a frustrating movie that certainly sees itself as empowering while at the same time giving the real women who fought this fight the surface-level treatment. Would a female writer/director team have served this story better? Possibly. Maybe they would have spent more time digging into the real story and more importantly exploring the women who made the story so important and worth telling.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Batman: The Killing Joke”

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The 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke” has been heralded as one of the very best Batman stories ever told. I tend agree with that. Writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s award-winning work shook the Batman universe to its core and the ripple effect is still being felt.

With such widely held appreciation and popularity, I’m surprised it took until 2016 to get an animated adaptation. It is material that seems ripe for the Warner Brothers Animation treatment especially in light of the popularity of “Batman: The Animated Series” and its feature film one-shots. Then again an argument could be made that it would have been best left alone.

Veteran Batman writer Brian Azzarello handles the screenplay duties and the results are bizarrely uneven. This is namely due to a jarringly out of tune prologue that is completely new to the “Killing Joke” story. In it Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (voiced by Tara Strong) becomes the object of a young mobster’s affections. As the thug draws Barbara deeper into his obsession, Batman (Kevin Conroy – the quintessential voice of Batman) grows concerned and demands she backs off.

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It seems the entire point of the prologue is to develop the relationship between Barbara and Batman. But there is an added twist that is completely out of left field. It weirdly sexualizes the Barbara Gordon character in a way that feels terribly unnecessary. Even worse it doesn’t connect well with the rest of the movie which turns out to be a pretty faithful representation of the graphic novel. This relationship Azzarello concocts between the two is essentially rendered mute and ineffective.

Once it gets away from its puzzling prologue the movie hits its stride. The Joker (Mark Hamill) finally appears providing a much needed jolt of energy. As expected the animation is spot-on and the voice acting, particularly from “Animated Series” veterans Conroy and Hamill, is one of biggest highlights. Fans of both the novel and “Batman: The Animated Series” will certainly appreciate what the movie eventually becomes. But getting to that point makes for a puzzling ride.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “The Big Short”

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You have to admit it takes a special talent to take collateralized debt obligations, subprime loans, and mortgage-backed securities and make something truly entertaining out of it. Yet that is exactly what Will Ferrell wingman turned partisan filmmaker Adam McKay has done with “The Big Short”, a strangely fun, fascinating and occasionally troublesome financial dramedy.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis which chronicled the events leading up to the 2008 banking crisis. McKay sticks close to the book putting his sites on the easiest of targets – wealthy white-collar brokers and bankers.  To no surprise there were plenty of people ready to buy into the film without hesitation. Of course in reality it wasn’t as black-and-white and there were far more people for McKay to blame who conveniently get a pass.

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But enough of that. The entertainment is found in the snappy, whip-smart script by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Interestingly the writing is also the source of some unfortunate frustration. “The Big Short” is jam-packed with Wall Street jargon and financial lingo that left my head spinning. The dialogue is dense and there is narration aplenty. The writing ends up being a double-edged sword – utterly captivating yet sometimes numbing for those who aren’t in the know.

The film follows three groups, each vaguely connected by the impending crisis. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an introverted hedge fund manager and the first person to notice the housing market is about to blow. The barefooted, cargo short-wearing Burry takes a big chunk of investor’s capital and bets billions of dollars on the market failing. Bale is the right guy for such an eccentric character but he disappears from the screen far too often.

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, an angry and cynical money manager who doesn’t trust the banks or the current system. He and his team are convinced by Ryan Gosling’s Deutsche Bank wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett to go in together and bet against the banks. For Vennett it’s a chance to make some easy money. For Baum it’s an opportunity to stick it to the financial world and twist the knife by taking their money. Carell probably gets the most screen time and fills it with a fairly one-note performance. He’s perpetually angry and always shouting. Think Michael Scott with less humor and a really sour attitude.

The third group features two young whiz kid investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who turned $110,000 to $30 million out of their Boulder, Colorado garage. They move to New York and get a whiff of the looming crash. Seeing dollar signs they convince a disillusioned securities trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to use his connections to get them in the game before the bottom falls out of the market.

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McKay bounces back-and-forth between these packs of financial wolves as they each try to position themselves for the biggest payoff. Again, the narration is aplenty often breaking the fourth wall. And in a weird attempt at mixing cleverness with humor, we get brief lessons on Wall Street terminology from celebrities playing themselves. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath talking about mortgage funds, Selina Gomez at a blackjack table explaining Synthetic CDOs, etc. It’s amusing but a bit distracting.

As “The Big Short” winds its way to its inevitable ending I felt exhausted. Trying to keep up with all of the fast market talk and financial blather wore me down. And there’s so much emphasis on it that the movie comes off as overstuffed and missing the human element which would have given it a more powerful punch. And McKay’s selective storytelling and convenient omissions keep the film from having the sting of authenticity it should. Still I admit to being mesmerized by the all business back-and-forths and how well the cast sells it even if I didn’t always understand what the heck they were saying.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars