Director: Michael Bay
Writer: Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, Doug Richardson; story by George Gallo
Cinematographer: Howard Atherton
Producer: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer
by Jon Cvack
The longer time goes on, the more certain I am that we’ll look back to Michael Bay as one of cinema’s greatest action directors. And it’s for a very simple reason - his movies are fun and a blast to watch. As much as people want to call them mindless or shallow, I could direct them to the nearest Red Box for a variety of straight to video action movies you’ve never heard of with A-level (or once A-level) stars. Thus it seems odd to believe these movies are fun without giving Michael Bay the credit of crafting well made movies. As time goes on and few have met his threshold, many of his movies are positioning themselves as works of art. They represent a moment in time. The 1990s-Mtv generation that liked things fast and flashy, with explosions, shoot outs, attractive scantily clad people, and car chases.
I decided to revisit the first two Bad Boys films in anticipation of seeing the third; saddened to learn that Michael Bay failed to return. I had no idea this was Michael Bay’s first film until about ten minutes in when it was clear that someone who had never made a movie before was finally given a $19 million budget to create a flashy action piece. Eyelines don’t match up, sequences are a bit awkward and confusing, and his cutting around of big action scenes is cheap and unconvincing. And yet by two thirds in, he seems to find his stride and creates an amazing piece of action filmmaking.
The story opens up with two detectives, Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowery (Will Smith ) driving a Porsche down the highway. Marcus is conservative, married, and living a middle class life. This is against Marcus who’s funny and gregarious, constantly hooking up with beautiful women. We learn that he inherited a boat load of money which subsidizes his sports cars and luxury apartments. It’s a simple and brilliant plot point. The cheap trick fully foils the pair, united only by their skin color, which plays a subtle though significant role throughout the series.
They’re pulled over by a pair of criminals and what’s interesting is that at no point do we know they’re cops. There’s a strong suggestion that we’re meant to go with the stereotype - two black dudes stole an expensive car, to then see them pull some moves, apprehend the car jacks, who then reveal themselves as the Miami PD.
The film cuts to a fast sequence involving a bunch of bad guys crawling through tunnels in order to blow through the floor of a police evidence room and steal a massive amount of heroin. They’re led by Fouchet (Tchéky Karyo ) who’s been in enough action movies for you to remember, though you might not know him by name.
The next day Marcus and Mike arrive at the bureau where they’re chewed out by police chief Captain Conrad Howard (Joe Pantoliano ) who’s furious over the break in. He assigns Mikey and Marcus the case.
Mike asks his ex-girlfriend (and possible escort) Max Logan (Karen Alexander) to see if any of her rich clients (aka drug dealers) have suddenly found business booming. Max and her friend Julie Mott (Téa Leoni ) then get hired as escorts and are taken to Fouchet’s mansion where his lieutenant and former cop Eddie Dominguez (Emmanuel Xuereb) makes Max. Julie hides, watching as Eddie shoots her dead. She attempts to escape and is chased down and it’s here that Bay’s nascent skills best display themselves.
“Wide for comedy, close for drama” could have the former substituted with action. There’re cheap ways to shoot thrilling sequences; focus on a bunch of close ups of bricks falling, feet running, and over the shoulder of the chased/chasers, but none of it will be as effective as attempting to show the stunt in wide - or Bay’s case for subsequent films, countless wides - in order to pull of the stunt. As the henchman chased Julie, I was reminded of the endless Steven Seagal and John Claude Van Damme movies I’d grown up with.
And yet what’s most fascinating about the film is watching Bay learn his style. It’s there from the start, especially with the evidence room heist, told in an onslaught of beautiful images, cut together in fractions of a second. By the second half of the film, it’s as though he had fully learned what worked and that we’re watching a filmmaker learn their voice.
Julie arrives at the police station and demands to talk to Mike Lowrey who’s out of town to investigate some leads on the matter. Captain Howard orders Marcus to pretend he’s Mike.
The film contains a bizarre and effective subplot (continued in both sequels) in that Marcus has been impotent and not having sex with his wife lately. Between the job and his kids, they haven’t been together in months and it’s starting to take its toll. His reluctance to take on Mike’s persona is less out of annoyance than temptation. Julie is attractive and likes to show it, and pretending to live at Mike’s apartment with her would prove just too difficult. As is, he doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
Mike soon comes back and learns the plan and gets the job of living at home with Marcus’s family.
The situation creates a subplot that’s straight out of a classic sex-charged screwball comedy. Marcus is increasingly tempted by Julie, making it all the more difficult to curb his jealousy when hearing Mike on the phone with his wife Theresa (Theresa Randle); taking on the role of provider with a bit of flirtation sprinkled in. Later, after an intense shootout, Julie and Marcus lie on the bed and Julie propositions him. It’s a scene straight from Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch as Julie talks right up to the precipice of saying she’s horny and wants to bang.
Soon Theresa gets the whiff of the situation, heads over to Mike’s apartment where she finds Mike, Marcus, and Julie who seems to suggest that Marcus has been hiding out so the three could have a menage e trois.
This is all against the hunt for a drug dealer, which includes two amazing action sequences. The first at a pure 90s dance club where everyone’s dressed in scanty goth gear. Marcus fights a man in a bathroom, providing Mission Impossible throwback resulting in an aquarium bursting open. Julie gets a gun and fires at Fouchet, resulting in an evacuation to car chase down through the miami streets.
The film culminates in Marcus and Mikey tracking down the latest export of heroin, leading them to an old airport where they surround the place with police and drive a delivery truck inside and a massive shootout takes place, ending with a jet airliner exploding and the bad guys getting killed. Marcus handcuffs Julie to Mikey and walks off to return home to his wife.
As far as I understand, this was the first popular buddy cop movie featuring two African American actors. They never show racism between whites and blacks, though there is a feud between them and a pair of latino officers, Sanchez (Nestor Serrano) and Ruiz (Julio Oscar Mechoso). The exchange goes so far as telling an off putting joke about immigrants drowning and grape juice and chicken, and suffice to say, it’s a pretty jarring moment.
While writing this I had seen Bad Boys for Life (2020), which is a sequel that drops the series as far as Live Free, or Die Hard. I’ll let you read those thoughts separately, but it made me realize how masterful this movie is. It doesn’t achieve the heights of Bad Boys II (2003) and has a few cheesy moments, but overall it’s a solid and fun action flick; all the more impressive for being a first feature. We see Bay develop his style, in which each moment is as thrilling and cinematic as possible.
BELOW: Action done right
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