Will Smith’s post-slap comeback

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Sony Pictures Entertainment Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys: Ride or Die (Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment)Sony Pictures Entertainment

The latest instalment of this buddy-comedy is “fun enough in its chaotic, grungy, rough and ready way” – but also “nonsensical”.

Is Will Smith a movie star again? At the Oscars in 2022, he had the best of times and the worst of times, in that he won the best actor trophy for his performance in King Richard, but he also swore repeatedly on live television, and slapped one of the presenters, Chris Rock. Two years on, he can be seen in the first Hollywood film he has made since that curious evening, but are we ready to forgive and forget? It will be interesting to see whether audiences will watch Smith in Bad Boys: Ride or Die – or, as it might just as well have been called, Bad Boys 4: Random Subtitle.

It was certainly a shrewd choice of comeback vehicle. Consisting of two Michael Bay films released in 1995 and 2003, and then a revival in 2020 directed by a Moroccan-Belgian duo known as Adil and Bilall, the Bad Boys franchise features Smith and Martin Lawrence as Mike and Marcus, two Miami police detectives with neat little matching beards. By appearing in a fourth instalment of this popular buddy-comedy franchise, Smith is implying that he is the same guy he always was.

Tonally, it’s a smart choice, too. It may be too soon to accept Smith as the family-friendly goofball of Aladdin and Spies in Disguise, or even as the upstanding, all-American hero of Independence Day and Men In Black. But in Bad Boys: Ride or Die, he plays a character who swears and fights with almost as much reckless abandon as he showed at the Oscars, so there’s nothing too jarring about seeing him in the role. If you can stomach the film’s queasy tone, which veers between wacky, knockabout high jinx and gruesome violence, often inflicted on women, then you aren’t going to be concerned about the star’s public assault of a fellow performer.

Adil and Bilall don’t give us much time to ponder Smith’s misbehaviour, anyway. In the hectic opening minutes, there’s the kind of bikini-centric montage that is obligatory in any Miami-set film, then Mike and Marcus screech around the city in a black Porsche at top speed, then they foil a garage hold-up, then Mike gets married, then Marcus has a heart attack, and then he has a blissed-out vision of the afterlife which convinces him that Mike has been his soulmate for thousands of years. This is all shot and edited in the most frantic manner imaginable, with a camera that whooshes all over the place. It’s impossible to tell what is going on in the action scenes, and even the quiet dialogue scenes feel like rollercoaster rides, but you can’t accuse the film of lacking in energy.

It may not propel Smith back to the top of the A-list, but it proves that he can get through a B-movie

It’s probably for the best, too, that there aren’t any postmodern jokes about Mike getting worked up and slapping someone – but if you squint, you can just about spot some references to Smith’s recent history. Mike’s bride, Christine (Melanie Liburd), doesn’t have any personality or back story of her own, but she does get to announce: “I met you at your lowest, but there was a fire in you that was extraordinary.” Smith himself is unusually restrained. Lawrence has the lead role on this occasion, and while he gurns and clowns with impressive gusto, he also gets more than his share of action heroics. Mike is no more than a grumpy straight man who suffers from guilt-induced panic attacks (when the scriptwriters remember to include them). Could these be a reference to Smith’s own issues?

I suspect that they are, but, again, Bad Boys: Ride or Die is not exactly a thoughtful character study. After the surreal business of Marcus’s near-death experience, it becomes a typical by-the-numbers cop thriller, with lots of helicopters, explosions and noisy, video game-style shoot-outs, and a crowd of interchangeable sidekicks who will mean nothing to anyone who can’t recall the previous Bad Boys films in minute detail.

What kicks it all off is that the detectives’ boss, Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), is accused of being in the pocket of a drugs cartel, despite the small matter of his being murdered in Bad Boys for Life. Mike and Marcus are determined to clear the late Captain’s name, with the help of some cryptic messages he recorded before his death, but that means teaming up with his murderer, who happens to be Mike’s son (Jacob Scipio). I should probably mention that Miami’s handsome and well-groomed prospective mayor (Ioan Gruffudd) is at Mike’s wedding, so some viewers may suspect that he is in on the conspiracy.

Critics are sometimes told that we shouldn’t analyse Hollywood blockbusters, we should just switch off our brains and enjoy them. Well, not many films are as dependent on our brains being on standby as Bad Boys: Ride or Die. The plot is nonsensical, the grenade-dodging stunts are even more nonsensical, and the internal logic is non-existent: the assertion that Marcus has to avoid stressful situations after his heart attack is forgotten within 30 seconds. But the film is fun enough in its chaotic, grungy, rough and ready way. It may not propel Smith back to the top of the A-list, but it proves that he can get through a B-movie. At this stage in his career, that counts as a win.

★★☆☆☆

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