Chapter Two: Bad Boys II
By Brett Ballard-Beach
September 13, 2012

Ever feel like the entire world is against you?

“We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. Our obligation is to make money.” --Quote attributed to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, but apparently also beloved by late producer Don Simpson

Statistical interlude: Although Michael Bay and the late Tony Scott are the directors that have made the most films in collaboration with Simpson and/or Jerry Bruckheimer (five and six respectively) and may first come to mind when thinking of a Simpson/Bruckheimer production, the following mélange have helmed as well, over the last 30+ years: Paul Schrader, Garry Marshall, Adrian Lyne, Michael Mann, Simon West, Dominic Cena, Joel Schumacher, David McNally, Boaz Yakin, Antoine Fuqua, Ridley Scott, Jon Turteltaub, Gore Verbinski, P.J. Hogan, Mike Newell, and Rob Marshall.

I don’t remember much from the very first R-rated movie I ever saw in its entirety. The film was 1983’s Blue Thunder, which my parents took me to see in the theater when I was seven. Yet there is a single image that shook me back then and still lingers in me with a sense of palpable unease, like the dream I once had where I was shot point blank in the shoulder. It involves the hero’s sidekick being shot in the back as he attempts to escape from his captors, his hands cuffed behind him. Considering the number of movies I had seen by that point, it surely was not the first death or overt act of violence I had encountered. But the lack of morality of it haunted me. It settled upon me as if to say, “This too happens.” It wasn’t simply “not fair” like Old Yeller’s execution, Bambi’s mother’s death, or those minutes in E.T. when he has kicked the bucket. This was a punch to my still-developing gut.

Flash-forward seven years to the summer of 1990 and the opening weekend of Total Recall. In an almost throwaway moment about halfway through, a hapless college student on holiday (at least I thought him to be because he had a kind of collegiate air about him, knapsack over his shoulder, khaki shorts and dazed vacant stare) winds up as a makeshift human shield on an escalator for a gunfight between Schwarzenegger and his pursuers, totaling at least a dozen gunshots when all is said and done. It’s played for laughs (in the editing and manner of its choreography, and the swiftness with which his bullet-riddled carcass is tossed aside) but it’s still worlds removed from the satirical moment in Robocop when the hapless junior executive is machine-gunned to death after the robot prototype refuses to acknowledge the j.e. dropped his weapon.

By this point, I had seen countless slasher movies and action films with high body counts, but something about this unbilled player who is introduced simply to be cannon fodder stuck a nerve as Blue Thunder had with my younger self. Perhaps it’s simply a sentimental categorization of the “innocent” vs. everyone else. With that in mind, I still take those examples and latter-day ones, like my recent reaction to a 20-year anniversary screening of The Last Boy Scout (see my previous Chapter Two) as positive signs that I hadn’t become completely inured to the impact of viscera. The focus of this week’s column politely takes up that challenge.

How can Bad Boys II best be captured in a pithy pull quote that almost sounds like praise? Here goes: Bad Boys II is a $130 million dollar hit of E. Bad Boys II is the acme of gratuitous sequels of the ‘00s. Bad Boys II is the R-rated “director’s cut” pilot for CSI: Miami merged with the Platinum Dunes re-boot/mix/make of Bad Boys. Bad Boys II knows no bounds, takes no prisoners, offers no apologies, and suffers no bouts of logic, conscience, or formality. For fuck’s sake, its final act involves an armed invasion of Cuba by a consortium of Miami PD and ex-Navy SEALS, abetted by anti-Castro rebels and the action climaxes on a live minefield outside the barbed wire confines of Gitmo Bay. (I could almost be describing lost moments from Harold & Kumar’s second feature.) But, that’s getting ahead of things.

Bad Boys came out in 1995 and marked the ascendance of two television stars: Will Smith (whose next film, released just weeks after the series ender of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, would be Independence Day), and Martin Lawrence (who still had two more seasons of Martin left, but would turn to directing for the first and only time with his next film, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate). Bad Boys opened at #1 with $15 million on its way to $65 million total and slightly more than that worldwide, on a $19 million budget. I re-watched it along with Bad Boys II and cared even less about it now then I did then (at least Bad Boys II gets me worked up) but there is one truth that I recognized then that still holds up today: Tea Leoni can be a formidable comic talent given the right role, but watching her play the archetypal, short-skirted, dead-behind-the-eyes Bay heroine with the camera leering over her ass and tits is painful. She is as sorely and absurdly miscast - and appears as uncomfortable - as Ellen DeGeneres playing the heterosexual romantic lead in that dreadful 1996 comedy with Bill Pullman. (No, I am not going to summon its name.)

Bad Boys wasn’t a film that ever cried out for a second installment, but from the “obligation to make money” standpoint, it would have been understandable if a sequel had come out within a year or two reuniting everyone for more of the same with a slightly bigger budget. By that time, however, Smith and Bay had blown up big time, Simpson had passed on, and the end result was an eight-year slog towards a prime summer opening in July 2003 with a budget almost seven times larger than the first film, a running time a half hour longer (up from 119 minutes to a grueling 146 minutes), and a plot whose tone veers wildly between third-rate standup humor & horrific grindhouse violence, and doesn’t just border on parody but occupies it, with hostile intent.

For one of the world’s biggest (and most likable) stars coming off his first Oscar nomination, and a director on a commercial hot streak with back to back PG-13 films - Armageddon and Pearl Harbor - grossing at or near $200 million, it seems in retrospect both a curious step backwards and an understandable vertical run to reunite for an event film that seemed determined to blow everything up real good to justify its existence. Even with that hefty price tag, Bad Boys II more than doubled it globally, grossing $138 million domestically and $134 overseas. It’s Lawrence’s second biggest hit (after Wild Hogs) but doesn’t make the top five for Bruckheimer, Bay or Smith. Critically, it’s regarded about as well as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which is to say not very) and like that movie it features very small creatures involved in attempted intercourse (a dog humping a leg in T: RotF and two rats copulating in Bad Boys II).

The screenplay is a peculiar mash up of “visions” with frequent Bruckheimer collaborators Cormac & Marianne Wibberly - writers of the family-friendly National Treasure series and G-Force - getting co-story credit along with Ron Shelton, best known for sports films including Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup. Shelton then gets screenplay credit, as does Jerry Stahl, a television writer (ALF in the ‘80s, CSI in the last decade) who is still best known by me for being portrayed by Ben Stiller in the adaptation of Stahl’s memoir Permanent Midnight. Now, Shelton has also directed and/or written some cop-related films such as Dark Blue and Hollywood Homicide, but I would be hard-pressed among that trio of scribes to determine who was responsible for the film’s exceedingly raunchy tone, cavalierly nonchalant misogyny, and horrific violence as a punchline.

The first film’s “hook” was that, for completely arbitrary reasons, Smith’s character had to pretend to be Lawrence’s character and vice/versa. No wackiness ensured because of this. Here, Detective Mike Lowery (Smith) has been carrying on a love affair with his partner’s sister (unbeknownst to him an undercover DEA agent) and they can’t tell the partner because he’ll go all Scarface or something something. Even with all these scribes, the film is barely able to string together a coherent through-line as to the progression of the case (there may be less detecting done here than in any other Hollywood assembly line buddy comedy). If I am not mistaken, this is also the first film ever where the action is set in motion by the drug lord’s decision to move his millions of dollars of illicit cash out of the basement of his moldering mansion/funeral home because an outbreak of rats are eating through the money.

As foul-mouthed, violent and vulgar as it is, Bad Boys II is exceptionally, deeply conservative and jingoistic, committed to such a narrow-minded, domestic-slanted worldview, it floors me that this played as well as it did overseas. Coming two years after 9/11 and two months after President George W. Bush’s now-infamous appearance on an aircraft carrier to declare “victory” in Iraq, Bad Boys II is the Mission Accomplished of blow ‘em up action films. It argues for decisive unilateral action - facts, codes of conduct, and discretion be damned.

Bad Boys II gives us a hissable and fey, though not very involving villain (Johnny Tapia, poorly embodied by Jordi Molla) pursued through every illegal method necessary by perhaps two of the most unlikable lead characters ever to be given a franchise. Smith and Lawrence both play the same exact notes of bitter cynicism, castrated male machismo, and barely tethered psychotic rage, resulting in less of a comic duet between two talented actors (who were reportedly given significant leeway with improv) and more like sullen monologues that happen to overlap. With the previous paragraphs in mind, here is the condensed version of Bad Boys II, with five key sequences that sum up the extraneous 120 odd minutes surrounding them:

First sequence (two parts, spread out over the first 15 minutes): Ecstatical Hell. It was heroin in the first film and E here, the better to feature an agonizingly unfunny sequence late in the action where Detective Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) accidentally ingests two tabs and morphs into an unfunny impression of a black man on ecstasy. The film opens on a literal “camera wipe” as a thick coat of ecstasy powder is cleared off the lens by a squeegee. From there fast cuts and subtitles like “Amsterdam” and “Miami, FL” track the production, packaging and distribution of the drug until it makes its way into a night club owned by Russian mobster Alexei (Peter Stormare, ill-used and underutilized). Bay envisions this club as a blue-filtered, blacklit, 160 bmp-scored vision of hell with sprinkler systems misting the clientele like so much produce in the grocery store, wet t-shirted women tonguing E pills towards one another, and an overdose that winds up with the dude being tossed out back to die in a garbage-strewn alley.

Second sequence (26 minutes in, lasting over 10 minutes): Neverending Chase Story. What would pass for the climax in most films is only the first of three extended chase scenes detailing the fallout from a drug deal gone bad, involving Burnett’s undercover DEA sister, and which eventually entails cars being dropped from a transport vehicle, flipping over and causing as much mayhem as the opening scene in Final Destination 2. As spectacles of destruction go, this stretch is admittedly exhilarating, building to the moment when Lowery executes a 420 degree turn in his vehicle, decelerates from full tilt boogie to complete stop, whips out his sub-machine gun (?!), wastes a few drug henchmen, and offers a subpar quip. Don’t stop to think about the billions of dollars of destruction to downtown Miami.

Third sequence(s): Gay Humor is (supposed to be) Funny. Padding on to the running time are two scenes that I think are supposed to illustrate the ebb and flow of Burnett’s and Lowery’s relationship, but which range from miscalculated to offensive. In the first one, the partners are accidentally broadcast on closed video at a home electronics store talking about Mike’s unintentional shooting of Marcus in the ass. To the flabbergasted shoppers, it sounds like they are discussing anal sex (tee hee). The camera keeps cutting away to an angry mother covering her children’s ears in horror and later telling the duo they need to “get with Jesus.” Sophomoric humor aside, it all seems to be for the audience’s benefit: laugh at the men expressing their feelings, titter at the homophobic matron…

Or not, as later Mike and Marcus cruelly intimidate, berate, and jokingly threaten to rape the date who has arrived to take out Marcus’ daughter. He is soft-spoken, well mannered, is given almost no dialogue, and has no other scenes prior to or in the wake of these five minutes. As attempts at humor, it is one of the most flagrantly miscalculated I can recall outside of the entirety of Peter Berg’s feature Very Bad Things. Mike and Marcus cross the line over to assholes at this point and there is no redemption forthcoming. It stirs the same level of discomfort in me as the scenes in Blue Thunder and Total Recall did.

Fourth sequence: Check out the Titties on the Dead Woman. In the name of laughs (and plot semantics) corpses are stuffed with drugs, flung from the backs of ambulances and run over, and subjected to having the detectives shove their arms up into their hallowed out chest cavities, in search of said drugs. Time is allowed to leer over a big-breasted blonde, who must have had a really good agent as she rates a credit despite having no dialogue. Or motion.

Fifth sequence: Winning the Bay of Pigs, 40 years later. This is a big dumb action film and they are often filled with violent futile gestures, mass destruction and little to no resemblance to reality. But the finale of Bad Boys II isn’t as cartoony as Schwarzenegger taking on a dictator’s army singlehandedly to rescue his daughter. Mike and Marcus launch an all-out invasion of Cuba to kill Tapia and get Marcus’ kidnapped sister back. The big chase scene is conducted down a steep hill dotted with shanties, presumably all with people inside. There is a single, turn your ear and you miss it line of dialogue to suggest this is okay because these shanties are where drugs are made, hence all the people inside are bad. But that throwaway masks nothing. It is simply representative of a celluloid view where everyone beneath the heroes and villain is simply meat: to be ground up, to be detonated, to be prodded postmortem, to face plant off a parking structure column at 60 mph five stories below on to a car rooftop. I may be repulsed, and considering the lowbrow limits of my tastes, it may be hypocritical of me to react so strongly. At the end, victory has been achieved, but not justice. Dead drug lord innards are strewn all over the Cuba/Gitmo dividing line (and most of the lead characters). A lame “destruction of swimming pool” gag is reprised. We have met the enemy and he is us. My obligation is to call Bad Boys II’s bluff.

Afterthought: To reflect back once more to the last Chapter Two on Tony Scott, I can’t help but consider my thoughts on his handling of actors and letting even the small roles shine. In Bad Boys II, from the stars on down to the naked starlet in the morgue, no one is featured at their best.

Pop on over to Sole Criterion in two weeks time as the Bay lovefest continues with The Rock and/or Armageddon (neither of which I have seen in over a decade) and then come back here in October for a consideration of the question: What happens when R-rated movies tone down for the sequel? Police Academy 2 and Revenge of the Nerds II will be our case studies.