Bad Boys: Ride or Die Review – Out-Bayhems Michael Bay

Bad Boys: Ride or Die brings Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back for fun and (thankfully) comprehensible action.

Martin Lawrence stars in Columbia Pictures BAD BOYS: RIDE OR DIE. Photo by: Frank Masi
Photo: Frank Masi.

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the Belgian directing duo behind Bad Boys: Ride or Die, are what people are really talking about when they speak of Michael Bay. In these dark days of anonymous blockbusters with no personality or pop, it is indeed common for people to wax nostalgic about Bay, wishing that Bayhem would one day return to American screens in its full glory.

It’s a weird sentiment though, and not just because Bay hasn’t gone anywhere (in fact he continues to release movies every two or three years, most recently 6 Underground in 2019 and Ambulance in 2022). But it’s strange because Bay was a byword among film fans of the 2000s and 2010s: shorthand for grotesque messes that emphasized single spectacular shots over basic visual storytelling. When people remember Michael Bay, then, they remember not the actual Bay, but rather the idea of Michael Bay: fun action, striking images, and a sense of humor.

Adil & Bilall are the real deal, purveyors of the colorful, kinetic action that people want, with actual spacial geography and an ability to connect scenes from shot to shot.

In the first major set-piece of Bad Boys: Ride or Die, veteran cops Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) take cover when gunmen attack a swanky art showing. Marcus, ever the sitcom dad of the duo, has been banned from sweets after a heart attack at the start of the film. So when a sniper’s bullet blasts a bowl of candy, sending multicolored jellybeans into the air like glucose fireworks, Marcus cannot help but extend his tongue. When another bullet punctures the punch bowl, Marcus dives at the stream of red liquid like he’s chugging the waters of life.

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When Marcus pops up from behind the table with pistols in hand, Adil & Bilall do the classic Bay circular hero shot, rotating the camera round the rising warrior for maximum effect. But, unlike Bay, there’s nothing sanctimonious about the moment. This is a near-sexagenarian giving into his sweet tooth, not the usual embodiment of masculinity from Bay’s movies. Even better, we viewers understand the spacial arrangements. We know where Mike is, where the gunmen are, and where the fleeing bystanders are at. Without having to map the geography in our heads, we can sit back and watch the glorious chaos unfold.

The same cannot be said of Ride or Die‘s script by Chris Bremner and Will Beall. The film picks up shortly after the events of the third outing, the Adil & Bilall directed Bad Boys For Life, in which Mike’s long-lost son Armando (Jacob Scipio) seeks revenge at the behest of his terrifying mother, killing the Boys’ long-suffering boss Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano).

In Ride or Die, evidence connects Howard to cartel operations, sending Mike and Marcus on a mission to clear his name and, eventually, their own. They get help from new characters introduced in the previous film, including the SWAT-esque AMMO team, consisting of leader Rita (Paola Núñez), hulking sweetheart Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), and weapons expert Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens).

When focusing on this basic plot, Ride or Die is a blast. Despite the muddy motivations of chief villain Banker (played by Grey’s Anatomy alum Eric Dane, apparently stealing some of Neal McDonough’s “very white man with too-bright eyes” baddie roles), he cuts an intimidating figure.

When Ride or Die branches out into too many plot threads, the movie slows down. The movie begins with confirmed bachelor Mike Lowrey’s marriage to an all-new character (Melanie Liburd), despite the romantic chemistry with Rita, who is suddenly engaged to politician Lockwood (former Mr. Fantastic Ioan Gruffudd, a name just big enough to telegraph his character’s arc). Meanwhile Better Call Saul‘s Rhea Seehorn gets utterly wasted as Howard’s daughter, a U.S. Marshal with a grudge against our heroes.

Despite this over-plotting, the fundamental joy of the Bad Boys formula is in place throughout Ride or Die. Lawrence completely embraces the sitcom dad energy of Marcus, eschewing any pretensions to be an action star. Lawrence nails every single laugh line he delivers, especially when a ghostly vision of the late Captain Howard convinces him that he cannot die. With Marcus in the bumbling dad role, Mike and the new additions take up the heavy action lifting, and do it well. Smith proves once again that neither age nor slaps, nor prestige Oscar plays can diminish his on-screen persona. When he wants to be the coolest man on the planet, Will Smith can be the coolest man on the planet.

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Ride or Die even elides Bay’s conservative streak to a certain extent. Like all the rest of the Bad Boys movies, Ride or Die is a film about cops who disregard all civil rights and safety in their mission. But Ride or Die makes things personal all the way through, which somehow feels more honest than most copaganda. At no point are Mike and Marcus interested in serving or protecting, not even nominally. “Aren’t you the police?” asks a civilian at the end of the opening sequence where the duo stopped a robbery in the most violent way possible and then tell the shopkeeper to call 911.

Instead they pursue their own personal vendettas, employing military-grade weaponry and surveillance equipment against their enemy and no one else. That focus helps viewers have fun with the explosions and jokes without being lectured too much about how all this destruction is somehow good for the community.

Indeed, Bad Boys: Ride or Die is always at its best when it’s just Mike shooting and Marcus shouting. Adil & Bilall understand the neon appeal of Miami at night, and drench the screen with purples and pinks, broken by muzzle flares. They know how to emphasize the duo’s chemistry for maximum humor, and they know how to craft vivid and inventive action sequences.

At its best, Bad Boys: Ride or Die makes viewers feel like Marcus at the art gallery: high on sugar, shouting about how much fun we’re having while delighting in the well-staged chaos all around us. In those moments, Adil & Bilall deliver what Bay only suggests.

Bad Boys: Ride or Die opens on June 7, 2024.

Learn more about Den of Geek’s review process and why you can trust our recommendations here.

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3 out of 5