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Bad Boys II

The atmosphere in all of Michael Bay's films is thick. Maybe to justify the slow motion heroics, or that every structure can explode like an old grain silo, but there is always something in the air. It's as if Bay is so afraid of a lull or even a breather that the empty space filling most rooms isn't kinetic enough. Throughout his latest, Bad Boys II, sunlight plays off of dust in an attic, and shot up couch cushions cough out stuffing that hangs like fog. A stuffed to bursting soundtrack isn't enough; Bay keeps every frame full even when there is no action. He's like a panicked bachelor rattling keys in front of a crying baby.

Bay's first Bad Boys had a fairly smart play on the action-comedy buddy-cop genre. The action plot, some malarkey about stolen evidence heroin and a sexy female witness, was only connected to the comedy plot through the witness - not the heroin. Family man Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) had to playact ladies man/supercop as Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) while hiding the situation from his wife. Neither plot was groundbreaking, but the mixture of the two with the likable leads made for an enjoyable if innocuous picture.

That was eight years ago. That was The Rock ago. That was Armageddon ago. That was Pearl Harbor ago. Bay has a brand name to support, as well as an extra 52 mil to play with, and boy does it show. This time around, the explosions are bigger, the comedy is broader and the picture is weaker.

Like the first picture, things start with a drug caper that is far more complicated than it needs to be. Sure, the opening two sequences hum that already-old saw of heightened security and technology since 9-11, but following those opening sequences all of that is forgotten and it's back to basics. The main thrust of the action plot is a huge shipment of Ecstasy and a white suited Cuban trafficker, and then it is weakly combined with the comedy plot of Marcus's attractive sister (Gabrielle Union). Bad Boys II stumbles along to find some fun scenes, but overall comes up short of the original.

One of the problems with the sequel is the format. The original was shot in 1.85:1; with its tighter frame the aspect is appropriate for the character-based comedy that the first one charmed with. This time, Bay has bumped up to 2.35:1, which frames explosions and two-shots okay but is too wide for the smaller comedy and personal interaction. It's no coincidence that Bad Boys is Bay's strongest film and is the only one he shot at 1.85:1.

Bad Boys II abandons most of the family life aspect of Marcus's character, and even much of Mike's entitled supercop is whittled down to the standard genre caricature of loose cannon cop who dresses flashy. Neither personality is well defined from the other. Who is the instigator? Who is risking the most? This interplay makes the buddy cop picture work, and this interplay doesn't show up in Bad Boys II.

In the original, the genre stalwart of 'the safe one drives the other partner's car recklessly' was neatly turned on its ear as Mike, the reckless one, cheered on the daredevil driving of safety nut Marcus behind the wheel of Mike's Porsche. In Bad Boys II, Mike drives every time, taking about the same amount of care with a parade of cars - some his own, some borrowed - as an allergy sufferer does with some Kleenex when the pollen count peaks. It's not just a lack of continuity from one film to the other; it's a lack of dramatic material in this one.

Not to say the picture is all bad. Two scenes wander away from the destruction for laughs. One works, one doesn't. The one that doesn't seems more at home in one of Lawrence's lamer cop comedies like Blue Streak. The straight-laced Marcus accidentally ingests some drugs and attempted hijinks ensue. They scene doesn't play for a few reasons. First, if we are to enjoy the humor of this scene, we need to forget the danger of the drug in question. If we can forget this, then why do we care about the bad boys' mission? Secondly, the scene ends with a call to poison control and concerns about the possibility of brain damage. In a broader, wackier comedy this set-up might garner some yuks but it just doesn't fit here.

The comedy scene that does score a lot of laughs has Marcus and Mike hazing a young man who has arrived at Marcus's door to pick up his daughter for a date. Unfortunately, the scene is mostly divorced from any of the plots. A vague parallel could be made between Marcus's distrust of this suitor for his daughter and Mike's fears about his relationship with his partner's sister, but that plot point is brought up but never really exploited in any way. In fact this scene plays like the type of material that usually ends up as an extra on the DVD but played too funny to cut out.

At an unwieldy 150 minutes, the whole picture is oversaturated with too many plots and not enough story. The fantastic Peter Stormare is literally wasted as a Russian Mobster with a chain of clubs from which to push the X, in a plot line that could have easily been dropped. Henry Rollins shows up as a SWAT commander in an extended cameo that goes nowhere, and while another celebrity cameo works okay in the classically lame non-actor cameo way, I will only say that it comes right after Michael Bay's simply lame cameo.

The two leads are okay, but have lost the spark they had in the first picture, back when they were both clawing for the title of movie star. Smith is still charming as all get out, but just doesn't bring his A game to the material. Partly the script can be blamed, as he has to carry both the cop and the romance plot lines. When he's already a Valentino and a supercop there isn't much fun to be had with him just doing his thing. Lawrence relies on his standard bag of mugs, which he has refined down to about three over the last eight years. They seem fun enough but the fun of the family man just playing hardass is lost. Now he really is a bad boy who just happens to have a wife and kids.

Stylistically the picture owes a lot to Grand Theft Auto 3. From mindless car chases in available cars to shoot outs with voodoo gangsters, things have a false sheen. Everyone's playing cops and robbers, but it's just a game. A character is shot point blank in the face and another right behind him is sprayed with exit wound blood. No exiting bullet, just blood. Later on, things get personal for the boys. Mike grits his teeth and growls, "Shit just got real." It feels like a gear change moment, when the characters will drop their fun and games façade and sack up, but things just spin out to an even sillier pitch. For Bay, "real" means more calculated and louder.

From an ideological point of view, the picture is more fascist than Dirty Harry, with even the Captain (Joe Pantoliano) condoning their actions outside of the law unless the press knows about it. One can almost feel Bay's own reckless nature towards filmmaking surfacing. It's not laws or ethics that our characters are up against, but budget issues and red tape. Bay's chided school boy whinings come through when the Captain chews out the boys for wrecking too many cars for little or no gain.

The same song and dance has certainly haunted Bay throughout his career of mounting budgets and stunts sequences with almost nothing to show for it. The Captain wants to know why so much effort and money had to be wasted, and without a strong dramatic reason we are left wondering too. Bay can turn the sensurround up as far as it will go, but we don't feel the danger, the pure visceral pyrotechnic thrill when things go boom.

The original was 'R', but in this day and age one might expect Mike and Marcus to get toned down to a PG-13 for some action figures and a possible Saturday Morning Cartoon. Thankfully they did embrace their 'R' rating with this picture. There's F-bombs left and right, one breast shot that is actually used however briefly, and even a decent amount of gore. Maybe along with The Matrix Reloaded, this marks a return of summer film making for more mature audiences. Too bad the material is so juvenile.

The picture itself is better than almost anything Bay has done save the first picture, but that's a back handed compliment if there ever was one. While the cast is game and the pictures are pretty, the experience is a hollow one. The original film packed about as much dramatic weight as it could, but this one is a cotton candy of a movie. There's almost nothing to begin with, but it has been spun up into something that takes up room. When you're done you've got a cardboard tube and a stomach ache. Some people like that.


Jordan Rosa

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