Back in early 1995, the movie world was without Michael Bay, the man who would go on to direct The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and all manners of semi-live-action Transformers attacks. Bay’s first feature, Bad Boys, now making its Blu-Ray debut, wastes no time in letting everyone know what had been missing from the cinematic landscape. In the opening minutes, we’re treated to video-ready car worship, plenty of ridealong machismo, and comic dialogue about how being married means less sex.
It’s this labored, unfunny conversation between badass cops Marcus (Martin Lawrence) and Mike (Will Smith) that really introduces Bay to the world. Stylistically, he’s become best known for his action bombast and hyper-fast cutting, but Bay’s stealth trademark, what sinks many of his films below even guilty-pleasure level, is his apparent conviction that he knows from comedy, and his accompanying complete ineptitude in the very same area. Stuff Michael Bay seems to find inherently hilarious includes: Broad stereotypes, stuff happening to dead bodies, calling out any pop-culture references as blatantly as possible, and, of course, black people showing the kind of sass that white filmmakers (and audiences) so adore.
Many of these elements can be funny, of course, but not under Bay’s watch.Just starting out in Hollywood, he’s particularly enamored of black men behaving with a mixture of bravado, hostility, and yammering helplessness, as if he spent his youth watching but not nearly understanding African-American stand-up acts.
In Bad Boys (as well as its longer, louder, creepier sequel) Smith and Lawrence have plenty of space to riff, and by the first film’s debut in 1995, both had been honing their comic timing on long-running sitcoms. Yet paired off here, any potential comic chemistry is diluted to two guys yelling over each other, then stumbling through a particularly nonsensical and sub-sitcom iteration of what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plot, so named because no one in the movie is allowed to offer the simple explanation that would halt a series of stupid misunderstandings.
Again, idiot plots can be funny; so can Smith and even the sloppier, less charismatic Lawrence. Here, however, neither actor is allowed to have a particular point of view; their faces, fresh at the time, substitute for personality. Smith is supposed to be the smoother bachelor while Lawrence plays the harried family man, and for comic effect they have to switch places in several scenes, but Bay and his screenwriters can’t even work up a contrast more amusing than neat-versus-sloppy; more of the supposed humor comes from the difficulty of making up extremely stupid, pointless lies on the spot.
Yet the movie seems to consider this aspect of the movie downright vital, even when the lead characters themselves don’t seem to have any faith in it; a scene that should consist of logical explanation instead has their police captain (Joe Pantoliano) angrily insisting that they go through with their charade even though it makes next to no sense. Listening to the film’s commentary track, you may start to wonder if Pantoliano is a stand-in for the director.
The track, recycled from an earlier DVD release, features Bay’s characteristic mix of arrogance and honesty: “Let’s face it,” he says at one point, “I had a bad script.” He obviously cares about his work, and doesn’t consider Bad Boys its best representation. Far more shocking than this admittance, though, is his contention that the movie is held together by its hilarious comedy.
Its biggest laughs, though, may be unintentional. Lawrence’s mid-fight cry of “Wesley Snipes! Passenger 57!” is actually funnier now, closer as it is to a non sequitur rather than the dopey reference to a recent popular movie it represented in 1995, and Smith’s serious insistence that he “take[s] it to the max every day” sounds like a broad parody of action-movie dialogue. The movie’s banter and farce portions, though, are trying; Smith and Lawrence may have contributed plenty of improvisation, as Bay notes in the commentary, but they’ve essentially improvised an overlong episode of Three’s Company to kill time between shoot-outs.
Watching Bad Boys after 15 additional years of Bay’s work, it’s striking how much of his sense of humor seems to be rooted in the idea that Smith and Lawrence yelling nonsense at each other can elevate a whole movie; his own second-rate appraisal of comedy may be one of his biggest influences, following music videos and wet dreams. With its nineties Bruckheimer aesthetic, the movie looks great on Blu-Ray, in the sense that Bay’s visuals always have that color-friendly, big-budget sheen. It helps, too, that his early work is cut at a less punishing, show-offy pace, letting some decent if overblown action sequences breathe a little. Less manic and only half-bombastic, Bad Boys could’ve been a slick little B-movie without those endless comedic asides.
What comes through at the movie’s best and worst is Bay’s confidence (turns out, that’s his Porsche he’s worshipping in that opening sequence). He may not care much for the rote screenplay, but he sure loves his heroes. In a glimmer of originality chased with a flash of self-regard, Pantoliano, as the gruff captain, never actually gives Marcus and Mike the routine cop-movie chewing out, because he actually really likes them. He and Bay are so enthusiastic, you almost wish the feeling was warranted.