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‘Ride or Die’ Is Better Than It Should Be

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‘Ride or Die’ Is Better Than It Should Be

If there are five ages of man, maybe there are four ages of “Bad Boys.” There’s the early age — the original “Bad Boys” came out in 1995 — of youthful effrontery: zappy, flashy, mouthy, decadent. There’s the age when the heroes start to say, “We’re too old for this shit!” There’s the age when they’re too old to even be saying that.

And then there’s “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” the fourth entry in the franchise, in which the actors, the audience, and the whole culture is now so old for this shit that perhaps the only thing left to do is to ramp up the trash nostalgia to new levels of shameless overkill. It’s a truth of the universe that all blockbuster action series must come to an end (“Die Hard with a Lethal Weapon for Another 48 Hrs.” is now ancient history). But in “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” Will Smith and Martin Lawrence stoke our enthusiasm for that ballistic high-concept tradition with a midseason flair that hovers between antic and awesome.

What’s more, there’s something about the timing — it’s a total coincidence, but that’s part of how movies work ­— that feels almost karmic. This summer, Hollywood has already reeled in anxiety from the double-decker box-office disappointment of “The Fall Guy” and “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.” Could “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” come to the rescue by outperforming them? If so, it will be an instructive reminder of how much our addiction to movies like this one has powered the film industry for four decades. We like our movie junk food amped and familiar. In that light, what could be more comforting than watching the two stars of “Ride or Die” trash-talk each other with the kind of deep-dish disgruntled conviction it takes 29 years to build up?

The two go through the paces of a conspiracy thriller, centering on corrupt cops and cartels, that plays like an exercise in ultraviolence jacked, at moments, to video-game intensity. But that’s all very standard.

Here, though, is why the movie works. In the opening sequence, which references the action fanfare of the series’ last entry, “Bad Boys for Life” (2020), career-long cop buddies Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are speeding through Miami in Lowrey’s Porsche, with Mike at the wheel and Marcus (of course) getting ready to throw up. Marcus begs his partner to stop for a Ginger Ale, and they do — though Mike instructs him to take no more than 90 seconds. Marcus, though, can’t help himself. He needs that package of Skittles, that convenience-store hot dog that’s sitting there like temptation itself. The way Lawrence makes you feel that craving, the absolute infantile compulsion of it, is key: “Ride or Die” is going to be a movie in which the two stars act the holy hell out of formula. When Mike enters the store, the two have to contend with a tattooed hooligan who’s holding the place up with a gun, but Smith never acts like it’s a threat — just a bother.

A few scenes later, at Mike’s wedding to Christine (Melanie Liburd), Marcus makes a suitably embarrassing best-man speech and then, on the dance floor, suffers a heart attack. It looks like he’s a goner, signified by a trippy sequence in which he communes with the partners’ late beloved boss, Capt. Howard (Joe Pantoliano), on a stretch of beach that looks like heaven. But Howard says, “It’s not your time.” Marcus recovers, with a new lease on life that tells him to leave his creeping caution behind. He now thinks he’s invincible, and that his job is to heal everyone else’s mystic torment.

That sounds like a cliché (and is), but Lawrence invests Marcus’s born-again personality with a cockeyed sincerity that makes it urgent and uproarious. He’s the perfect foil for Mike, who Smith embodies with an ageless stoic finesse, a hotheaded cool so debonair it’s almost uncanny. These two actors, with nothing matching but their goatees, have a spiky bromantic chemistry. They don’t just ping off one another’s lines — they lock and load each other.

I went into the movie wondering how the Slap would impinge on Smith’s ability to be his airless and jocular Will Smith self, but he acts with supreme confidence and timing. And the film doesn’t sidestep his awkward moment of infamy. It makes direct reference to it. In the climax, Smith gets repeatedly slapped by his partner, who keeps calling him bad boy, and the scene acts as a kind of pop exorcism. It’s “punishing” Smith, making cruel fun of his transgression, and just maybe, in the process, allowing him to crawl out from under the image of it.

The plot is strictly standard issue. A press conference reveals that the late Capt. Howard is being smeared for corruption. Was he in cahoots with the cartels? We know the answer is no. But somebody was, and it’s up to Mike and Marcus to figure out who, even though the film doesn’t keep it a secret. (It’s a military baddie who assassinates people like he was swatting mosquitoes.) Mike and Marcus end up on the run along with Armando (Jacob Scipio), the underworld cold case who was revealed, in the previous film, to be Mike’s son.

“Ride or Die, in its flippant way, is a movie about “family,” and that works because the film’s co-directors, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (returning from “Bad Boys for Life”), are experts at fashioning and executing hair-trigger situations that hinge on the transformation of loyalty into action. There’s a hypnotic shootout aboard a military helicopter, a crowd-pleasing encounter at an NRA encampment, a rollicking finale at a Florida theme park abandoned by everyone but its crocodiles, as well as attitude-drenched cameos from Tiffany Haddish, DJ Khaled, and Michael Bay. Mostly, though, there are Smith and Lawrence, making yesterday’s overcooked street-smart popcorn seem tastier today than it has any right to be.

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