Review: In 'Bad Boys: Ride or Die,' the action party rolls on, vigorously and untroubled

The first “Bad Boys” came out in 1995, which means we’re officially entering aging-action-star territory with this franchise. “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” a fourth installment, is directed by the up-and-coming action filmmaking team Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, known as Adil & Bilall, who took over directing duties from Michael Bay with 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life.”

There seem to be only two options for an action star — or franchise — that’s getting up in years. You can either take the Tom Cruise route, returning to a text that was originally all flash and sensation, and infusing it with a sense of soulful poignancy as the character (and actor) reckons with what he’s sacrificed in his pursuit of pure adrenaline (e.g. “Top Gun: Maverick”). The other option is to join the crude, cynical supergroup modeled by the “Expendables” series, in which beloved stars josh and jostle for a cash grab.

But for the “Bad Boys” films, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence and producer Jerry Bruckheimer aren’t looking to alter much about what made the franchise successful in the first place. In fact, Smith, who has faced significant public upheaval in the past few years, is strangely ageless and unaffected in his performance as Miami detective Mike Lowery, easily slipping back into Mike-mode here. What’s weird is that it feels so normal to watch him in this role.

Adil & Bilall take the basic scaffolding and structure of the previous films — the Miami setting, the character archetypes that Smith and Lawrence have established, Bay’s distinctive visual language — and freestyle on top of it. The directors dutifully pay homage to Bay’s signature style, aping his constantly moving camera, low Dutch angles and the “Bad Boys shot,” in which the camera circles around Smith and Lawrence as they stand up into frame, staring into the distance. They treat the “Bad Boys” template like a coloring book, scribbling in with their own wild artistic experimentation over the lines.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” is a declaration of action independence, using new technology like drones and infusing the film with the grammar of video games. Bay himself utilized drones with a certain gonzo artfulness in his 2022 film “Ambulance,” but Adil & Bilall use their drones to follow people and movement in space and explore the geography of interiors.

They also use wild, rapidly-swapping first-person-shooter-style POV shots in the shootouts, which are legible to the average gamer even if they don’t always make cinematic sense. They can easily get away with layering in this kind of stylistic experimentation because the beats of “Bad Boys” are so familiar — and, as deployed in “Ride or Die,” essentially perfunctory.

Writers Chris Bremner and Will Beall offer a story that is wide but shallow. There’s certainly a lot of plot and even more characters, even if we don’t get to know them all that well. This convoluted yarn concerns the bad boys’ deceased Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who has been posthumously framed for corruption, accused of sharing intel with drug cartels. Cop partners Marcus (Lawrence) and Mike (Smith) seek to clear his name, but find themselves at odds with Howard’s U.S. Marshal daughter Judy (Rhea Seehorn), bent on vengeance, and their colleague Rita (Paola Nuñez), who has brought the charges via her attorney-mayoral candidate fiancé Lockwood (Ioan Gruffud). Their only chance at fingering the real bad guy is Mike’s drug-dealer son Armando (Jacob Scipio), who has been imprisoned for the bloody chaos he wrought in “For Life.”

Meanwhile, our guys are grappling with their own mortality and PTSD. After a near-death experience at Mike’s wedding, Marcus finds himself spiritually renewed, feeling invincible, euphoric and babbling about his past lives. Mike, on the other hand, is gripped with anxiety as a newlywed and as a “new” father.

But this simply provides the playground upon which the filmmakers can experiment and Lawrence can clown to his heart’s content. His performance is garish but there’s something about him that just wears you down over the course of two hours — one must simply submit to his comedic ministrations. The first half of the film is overly concerned with Marcus’ sugar addiction and during one shootout in an interactive art gallery, he has a single sip of fruit punch and reacts as if he’s freebased crystal meth. That theme is quickly dropped for other equally cartoonish bits, such as a run-in with a redneck militia, a callback to their infiltration of the Klan in the second movie and a side quest to a strip club, where they tangle with Tiffany Haddish.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” never quite finds its own tone, but then again, the franchise has always walked the strange line of goofy and hard, teetering between Lawrence and Smith, and despite the co-directors’ cinematic experimentation and a couple of impressively nasty fight scenes (courtesy of the younger actors), this installment favors the goofy. It’s a thin tapestry of lore with some interesting creative embellishments, but without any real interest in character, it feels flimsy and disposable. You could do worse, but you could certainly do better.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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