Welcome to Will Smith’s Post-Slap Career Hail Mary

We won’t bury the lede. Yes, it goes there.

Will Smith was not quite a full-blown, A-list movie star when mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer cast him in a buddy-cop action movie in 1995. He was still better known as the Fresh Prince than King of the Summer Blockbusters; compared to his costar Martin Lawrence, who was a few years into his run hosting Def Comedy Jam and had been killing it on his own popular sitcom Martin, Smith was arguably the bigger gamble in terms of placing asses in seats. Independence Day was more than a year away. But folks immediately recognized that the young man from Philly could hold his own within director Michael Bay‘s world of fast cars, loud guns, quick cuts and massive explosions. He had a big personality to match the big-tentpole template. Plus Smith and Lawrence had incredible chemistry together. Of course Bad Boys was a huge hit. It was just a hint of what was to come.

By the time Bay ginned up a sequel in 2003, Smith had the Men in Black franchise up and running, an Oscar nomination for playing Muhammad Ali, a chart-topping pop music career, several No. 1 movies, a notorious flop (RIP to the stillborn Wild Wild West cinematic universe), and global recognition. Lawrence was coming off years of bad P.R. The Q Scores had reversed, but the onscreen bond remained. Ditto the formula. Smith’s Mike Lowrey was a playboy with a taste for the good life. Lawrence’s Marcus Burnett was a God-fearing family man. The resident bad boys of Miami’s finest busted bad guys. The city looked hot and things blew up real good. If it ain’t broke….

When the directorial duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah took over the series for a belated third movie nearly two decades later, they knew not to mess with a good thing. Wisecracks, gunshots, close-ups, neon, rinse, repeat. The Bad Boy movies are meant to be a subtle as a Miami strip club on a Saturday night, and these guys had flashy style to burn. Smith and Lawrence were older, but clearly not “I’m too old for this shit!” old. The banter and set pieces still made it feel like you were watching a cross between a Hope-Crosby Road comedy and a Lethal Weapon entry. Bad Boys for Life hit theaters in the dead zone of January rather than the days of summer, which wasn’t exactly a sign of confidence. But given this was 2020, and the summer moviegoing season-slash-film-industry was about to crater, you’d swear they had a crystal ball on hand.

Which brings us to June 2024, and the release of a fourth team-up between Detectives Lowery and Burnett, and wow, where do we even begin? Lawrence is now viewed as an elder statesman of stand-up comedy and the guy behind a beloved ’90s sitcom, blessed with a nostalgia-based abundance of good will. Smith …has some baggage. He knows this, and he knows you know this, and you know that he knows that you know this, etc. Something happened. The directors, his costars, your friends and neighbors, and possibly even aliens visiting from outer space are well aware that a certain elephant is squatting in the room housing all this gunfire, car chases, scenes of beautiful people loitering in night clubs and smart-ass one-liners. So Smith decides to feed that metaphorical pachyderm a peanut.

It happens late into Bad Boys: Ride or Die, long after the stakes have been established, the recurring characters have been put into play, and the typically batshit storyline has taken its share of twists and turns. The perpetually single Mike Lowery has gotten married. His partner Mike Burnett has had a heart attack, and the near-death experience has changed him — not to mention a chance to bring back previously killed characters like Joe Pantoliano’s late Captain Howard. In fact, their deceased boss has his name dragged through the mud when this edition’s villain, played by Euphoria‘s Eric Dane, makes it seem that the chief had been on the cartel’s payroll. The bad boys must now prove he’s innocent. When an FBI agent — who’s such a caricature of entitled Caucasian cockiness that you’re surprised they didn’t just name the character Whitey W. Whiterson — taunts Lowery, the cop gets in his face and starts yelling at him in a voice that brings to mind an uncomfortable exchange at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles from a few years back.

But that’s not the peanut. That comes after the duo and Jacob Scipio’s Armando — the former cartel scion who tried to kill Mike in Bad Boys For Life but is also Mike’s son, in case you forget that particular soap-operatic plot point — have survived a helicopter crash, and become fugitives pursued by a U.S. Marshal who’s also Captain Howard’s daughter (Rhea Seehorn), and fooled some redneck peckerwoods by singing their imagined version of a Reba McEntire song, and are reunited with the AMMO MVPs played by Vanessa Hudgens and Alexander Ludwig. Tiffany Haddish has already had her cameo. So has DJ Khaled, who’s still pissed off about what happened to him in the third movie. The people you knew would be taken hostage have been taken hostage. We’ve somehow manged to witness a shot that lasts a full 12 seconds, beating the series’ previous record for Longest Held Visual by four seconds. The equivalent of Chekhov’s gun has been placed on the mantle, and by “gun,” we naturally mean a 16-foot albino alligator named Duke.

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence star in ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die.’

Frank Masi/Sony Pictures

They’re about to have a final showdown with all of the factions that have made their lives hell. Lowery has already suffered a panic attack once, and now he feels one coming on again. Everyone he loves is in danger, everything he holds dear is on the line, and for a split second, it feels like the brasher half of the bad-boys duo is going to choke at a key moment.

Then — all apologies if this is a spoiler — a character slaps Mike. He slaps him hard. Then he does it again. And again. And one more time for good measure. Will Smith gets slapped across the face four times onscreen. The audience at our screening gasped. Then they laughed, hard, almost as hard as those slaps, and they cheered at high volume when Smith and Lawrence and the rest of the good guys fucked up the bad guys.


And you suddenly understand that not only is Bad Boys: Ride or Die a sequel to a popular movie franchise, it’s a career Hail-Mary. It’s an attempt at a reset. It’s a reminder that Will Smith is still a movie star, that he will neither grovel for your forgiveness nor bend over backwards to make you forget what transpired at an awards show not that long ago. You will, however, watch him do the action-movie things he does best. You’ll crack up at him and Lawrence busting each other’s chops, even when (usually when) the jokes aren’t that funny. You’ll recognize that, like the other Bad Boys movies, that this is the cinematic equivalent of exquisitely prepared fast food, empty-calorie entertainment that people love to eat because it tastes good going down.

You’ll remember that guy who doled out a very public hit took a proverbial hit afterwards, but he’d like you to think he’s back now, and here’s a big-ass summer action comedy filled with bullets and Porsches and heroics and the sort of matinee-idol grins that you associate with the capital-M Movies. It’s a first, effective step back on a road to professional recovery. You’ll likely go see it, too, less out of car-wreck curiosity and more because whatcha gonna do when a star asking you to love him again without seeming like he’s asking you to love him again comes for you?

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