When “Bad Boys” was released in 1995, it was far from a sure thing.
Budgeted at a mere $19 million, the mismatched buddy action movie starred a pair of unproven sitcom actors that the studio wasn't keen on (Martin Lawrence and Will Smith) and was helmed by Michael Bay, a young, first-time filmmaker best known for his flashy commercials and music video work (none of which showed a particular strength for narrative storytelling). But “Bad Boys” defied the odds, making a whopping $141 million worldwide and spawning “Bad Boys II,” released 15 years ago this week.
Looking back, the film feels somewhat ahead of its time, especially considering how many overdue, mega-budget sequels are storming the multiplexes (“Bad Boys II” arrived eight years after the original, costing $130 million more than its predecessor), but it also stands out as the nastiest, most mean-spirited blockbuster Hollywood has ever unleashed. Still.
For some reason, even though the film has three credited writers, the runtime is a flabbergasting 147 minutes. (For those of you playing at home, this is a half-hour longer than the first film.) But what to fill such a whopping runtime? Well, as it turns out, uncontrollable filth.
Take the opening sequence, for instance, which -- after some incredibly flashy exposition involving Amsterdam drug dealers and some cartoonish Hispanic drug lords -- we are inserted into, of all things, a Ku Klux Klan rally (amongst the hooded masses: a young Michael Shannon!) And Bay really goes full out -- there are the robes, the burning crosses, the bucktoothed hillbillies. It’s more alarming to see in our even-more-racially-splintered 2018, but 15 years ago it was still a shock.
The comedic payoff of this sequence, of course, is that Lawrence and Smith reveal themselves to be playing the part of white supremacists, with Smith unloading his double barrels into the baddies.
The bloodshed is spectacular, in the sense that it is photographed with an almost pornographic attention to detail by Bay and his cinematographer Amir Mokri, but also because the director turns each bullet hole into a spectacle. Each shot is like a gory Fourth of July fireworks display.
This level of ultraviolence isn’t out of the ordinary if you’re watching, say, South Korean genre cinema or some extreme Japanese horror film. But in a mainstream American film that, despite its R rating, was marketed to the widest possible audience (including those too-young viewers that would be drawn to it anyway), the violence is positively shocking. And it continues throughout the rest of the movie, culminating with a shot of the villain’s exploding head that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Cronenberg movie.
It's not just the violence, though, that makes “Bad Boys II” a singularly mean-spirited experience. Even more egregious is the film’s threatment of women, beginning in that opening montage, when a floozy retrieves a drug lord’s handgun, accidentally firing off a shot. The drug lord (Jordi Molla), turns towards camera and utters a phrase unrepeatable on a family website.
Women are seen as being unable to make their own decisions (as in the prolonged, mostly unnecessary subplot about Smith dating Lawrence’s adult sister) and mostly just as objects. In a scene set in an Amsterdam club, the camera glides underneath short skirts and hangs around lasciviously as the same women (donned in see-through shirts) take drugs. Later on, in a scene that goes on forever, a nude woman’s corpse is turned into a bizarre fetish object for the male characters to leer at. (Honestly, how this movie avoided an NC-17 rating is anybody's guess.)
And yet the most offensive scene might be a moment when Lawrence, concerned about his teenage daughter going out on a date (the horror!), decides to intimidate her would-be suitor. He and Smith open the door, throw around the N-word and imply homosexual rape. It was a sequence that so deeply offended Roger Ebert, that he made it the crux of his one-star review, citing the scene’s “needless cruelty.” Somehow, he found it even more objectionable than the high-speed chase that involved naked bodies flying out of a hearse and exploding on the pavement below.
It would be one thing if “Bad Boys II,” which, in addition to the N-word and F-word, makes frequent racial jabs and homophobic remarks, was mean-spirited in a singular way. But the fact is that it’s a toxic bouillabaisse of debased and morally questionable ideas, concepts, and images. It’s a scummy, oftentimes witless attempt at edginess and modernity. 15 years later, it is even nastier.
But here’s the thing -- and it really does pain me to say this -- watching “Bad Boys II” is also an oftentimes transporting experience. (Bay, as a craftsman, is at the top of his game and many of the shots are downright jaw-dropping.)
And its mean-spiritedness, while certainly a spiritual shortcoming, acts to set it apart from so much squeaky clean, homogenic Hollywood product. “Bad Boys II” is unquestionable rude, crude, and unacceptable, but it’s also something of a bad taste breakthrough, a moment when the mainstream was seized, with slick artfulness, and thrown into a cauldron of moral bankruptcy.
It’s not for everyone. And it might not be for anyone. But it’s undeniably “Bad Boys II.”