Say what you will about Michael Bay—and people have said a lot about Michael Bay—the man knows how to make an action movie. Bad Boys, from 1995, his first feature film, and its sequel, from 2003, which is making its Blu-ray debut as part of a 20th anniversary collection from Sony Pictures, are just two notable examples. These films are bursting at the seams with car chases, gunfights, explosions, and more, much more. There isn’t a whole lot beneath the surface, but there doesn’t really need to be. What these two films set out to do, they do very well, and what Bay does best, he does better than anybody. That may not always (hardly ever) be critically acceptable in terms of “quality cinema,” but the result is skillful, vigorous, generally entertaining, and extremely profitable. Cases in point: the two Bad Boys films.
Before getting to the action, though, which is the most impressive and laudable element of every Michael Bay movie, Bad Boys is built on a standard buddy film template, with a clash of personalities joining together when necessary in the interest of professional duty. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence play Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett. While they have differing tactical methods, the two prove essentially efficient, even if they leave in their wake a trail of dead bodies and collateral damage. Neither work exactly by the book, but the movies wouldn’t be much fun if they did. Their character contrast is not only in temperament and methodology, but also in their individual history and their private social status: Marcus is fairly domesticated with a wife and children, relying on his paycheck, and keen to play it safe; Mike is a bachelor, a ladies man, from a wealthy family, and more than willing to take risks. Marcus is high-strung and anxious; Mike is smooth and confident.
In the first film, when Mike and Marcus must swap lifestyles, this disparity perfectly sets up the humor latent in their conflicting personas, thus serving the purpose of the movie’s primary comical conceit. In the second Bad Boys, Marcus’s sister Syd (Gabrielle Union) enters the picture. She works for the DEA and, unbeknownst to Marcus, is in a relationship with Mike, which suggests his womanizing ways have passed since the prior film. That is one point of tension between the partners. But further complicating their relationship is the revelation that Marcus has apparently had enough of Mike’s recklessness and has put in for a transfer.
This is about the extent of the films’ character development and evolution. The deepest example of Mike and Marcus achieving any sort of profound realization is in the loyalty, the brotherhood, that despite antagonism nevertheless remains. By comparison, the bad guys in the two films, who are hardly worth mentioning, are simply bad and generally inconsequential…save for them being the bad guys. Their major point of differentiation is that in the first movie they deal in heroin while in the second they deal ecstasy. Compared to this standard nefarious triviality, Mike and Marcus are reasonably substantial individuals.
Still, nothing about any of this is particularly earth shattering, and Bay himself acknowledges the poor script he was working from with the first Bad Boys. But what kept his interest, and indeed, what makes the films entertaining (along with Bay’s visual initiative—more on that later) are the charismatic Smith and Lawrence. While there is no heartfelt association between these men and the audience, we don’t mind spending a few hours with the two of them. There may be an overabundance of the incessantly chaotic bickering that occurs in most partners-in-opposition film scenarios, but there is a strong chemistry that works. To make up for the initially lackluster screenplay, Bay allowed for Smith and Lawrence to improvise a good deal of their confrontational agitation. Their corresponding talents show in the naturally humorous combative banter and the amusing interactions with others, from their colleagues to the hapless boy showing up to take out Marcus’ daughter. Sometimes the two, especially Smith, strut and pose to play up the visual coolness of their swagger, but it’s all in good fun. In fact, while it’s perfectly understandable that Will Smith would want to broaden his range and venture into more dramatic opportunities (though the success of that outcome has been debatable), there is obviously a reason why roles like these are what made him a star.
These stylistic hallmarks are all evident in the first Bad Boys film, which is flashy but never overly so. But for better or worse, Bay turns the visual voltage up to eleven with Bad Boys II. Everything about the second Bad Boys is slicker and more extravagant: there are better cars, and more of them; better car chases, and more of them; better stunts, and more of them. The violence, pursuits, and explosions are gloriously over the top and the action sequences are lengthier and much more elaborate. With Bad Boys II, Bay was working off a considerably higher budget (about $130 million), which, along with nearly 10 years of technical advancement, also increased the amount of digital imagery. This he seamlessly and creatively integrates to admirable effect. Most impressive in the sequel are the digitally enhanced single takes, Bay using the CGI at his disposal to have the “camera” seemingly swoop in, out, above, below, and through realistically impossible structures, often without a perceived cut. The films are also increasingly expansive in terms of settings and set pieces, with the action tracking over large portions of the Miami area (and beyond, in the case of the sequel). Less remarkable, though nonetheless vital to Bay’s overarching approach toward action, are common elements like glass breaking, water spraying, and debris flying. It may not all be substantive, but it is expertly accomplished.
Now, of course, the above is not to suggest the Bad Boys films are great works of cinematic art. Though enjoyable, they have more than their fair share of flaws. Leaving the narrative issues aside (Bay says the first film has logic you could drive a truck through), there is a treatment of women that is questionable at best. Bay by no means holds a monopoly on such a liability, and (male) filmmakers have been doing this since the advent of the medium, but with the lingering close-ups, suggestive angles, and mostly clichéd presentations, both Bad Boys films are marred by an objectifying sexualization or a demeaning physical portrayal of most featured females (a holdover from Bay’s Victoria’s Secret commercials?). I don’t believe there is any maliciously sexist intent in any of this, but it is present. There are also issues with the comedic tone of both Bad Boys, which ranges from good-natured wisecracks, often punctuated by funny pop culture allusions, to sophomorically crass commentary. The jokes in the two films, either voiced or visual, include a host of dubious material: gay jokes, rat sex jokes, erection jokes, ethnic and racial jokes, cadaver jokes, fart jokes, and, when Marcus accidentally downs some ecstasy, drug jokes. Some admittedly work; some most certainly do not.
Perhaps something like 13 Hours will change this, but one of the easiest and most common charges against Bay is that for what his films are worth—for those who are even willing to give his films some worth—their value is largely derived from superficial qualities. They look good, the characters are amusing enough (if occasionally annoying and not heavily engaging), but the films are, ultimately, frivolous exercises in overblown action and special effects. Be that as it may, and the Bad Boys films do skirt this territory, though they are less reliant on effect-driven exhibition than the Transformers series, for example; I can’t help but find his work immensely enjoyable.
Bay was not yet 30 at the time of production on the first Bad Boys, and he had years of successful and widely acclaimed music video and commercial experience behind him. It’s with this background that he developed the type of artistry I admire, one of pure visual bravado. Without getting into a whole theoretical/historical justification of Bay’s filmmaking, movies like Bad Boys fall in line with a cinematic concept going back to the purpose of movies at their inception: inventive imagery, pure spectacle, in Tom Gunning’s immortal words, “the cinema of attractions,” where story and character are secondary to simply seeing something incredible, technically if not logically. With Bad Boys and elsewhere, the argument I go back to with Michael Bay is that even if his films aren’t serious, aren’t especially well written, and do get carried away in terms of their barrage of action content, they ultimately still look amazing. Is that enough? I don’t know, sometimes I think it is.