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We live in an age of third acts. Starting with James Mangold’s suiperlative superhero western, Logan, an increasing number of old lions have been returning to the screen for one last ride. Maybe two, if the box office is good. There’s a problem with this which we’ll discuss later but there’s also a surprising upside: the vast majority of these returns have had some interesting things to say.
Logan is the best X-Men movie by some considerable distance, the Creed duology passes boxing’s greatest fictional legacy along with class and poignancy and Rambo: Last Blood is also a film that was made. More recently, Terminator: Dark Fate successfully rejuvenated the franchise creatively if not financially. Gemini Man and Bad Boys for Life used the simple passage of linear time to give Will Smith new stuff to do and later this week we get Picard, the return of Starfleet’s finest. Or at least one of them.
This could so easily be self indulgent man flexing and, to be fair, sometimes is. But more often than not it’s a chance to deep dive into masculine psychology and examine and question it. Never more so, so far, than with Bad Boys for Life.
Yes, you heard that right.
Bad Boys II was, somehow, seventeen(!!!!) years ago which is also roughly how long it’s second act feels. The brilliance of this delayed sequel lies in the fact the same amount of time has passed in-universe as out. Detective Marcus Burnett is still a hypochondriac and is all set to retire. Detective Mike Lowery is still basically the world’s most violent fashion model. Mike makes it look good. Marcus pleads with it to come to Jesus. They have a pretty good system.
Until Mike is gunned down as part of a systemic cull of the people responsible for putting a narco kingpin in jail years previously.
It’s an incredibly shocking moment precisely because it’s played so absolutely straight. The scene shifts instantly from light comedy to horror, mounting and mounting as more and more cops arrive and you realize it’s REAL. The hero of the series just took four shots to the chest and is bleeding out in front of you and suddenly, Mike’s world, and the nice predictable cocoon of the action movie, both shatter. Then the words
SIX MONTHS LATER
Choose to believe this is a tip of the hat to Hot Fuzz. I do. Mike lives but he’s far from fine and his partnership with Marcus fractures as Mike obsessively chases down the man responsible while Marcus, who watched his best friend die on the operating table, retires. As the two men’s paths diverge, we find out Marcus is bad at being a stay-at-home husband and Mike’s foe is also Mike’s son.
CAN OPEN. WORMS ACROBATICALLY SHOOTING PEOPLE EVERYWHERE.
It’s overwrought and filled with explosions and at one point Will Smith leaps off a motorbike (with a machine gun mounted on the side car), onto a speeding truck, runs up the truck and leaps off it as it explodes onto a rope ladder beneath a helicopter where he’s held at gunpoint before dropping into the sea.
It is, by no means, subtle.
And yet it is. Because each of these ridiculous moments is balanced with quiet, sincere character beats. It embraces the emotional consequences of aging AND cars with cool lights under them. An early joke about Mike dyeing his goatee is rendered heartbreaking by Marcus doing it for him while he’s in a coma. The scene where Mike figures out who the assassin is is genuinely tight with emotion and Smith and Lawrence are both excellent at shifting from comedy to pathos on the bounce. For every swagger and refusal to attend therapy there’s a moment of real tenderness and kindness.
They’re not alone either. There’s an entire past relationship with fellow detective Rita (the excellent Paola Núñez) that didn’t exist prior to this movie which feels storied and real. Rita’s fellow new characters, members of MPD team AMMO (it stands for subtlety), get some surprisingly fun things to do too. Vikings’ Alexander Ludwig is especially great as Dorn, their IT specialist whose relationship to violence is closer to Beck in The Rundown than the other police officers here. It also feels a lot like an amazingly violent debutante ball for Ludwig as an action star, much as the vastly fun Rundown was for Dwayne Johnson. And yes, if you haven’t seen it, you should.
But what’s really interesting here is a moment in the final gunfight. Mike asks Dorn to hurt some people and offers to pay for the therapy. Dorn agrees, and points out he’ll need it. It’s a fascinating little beat, an action monolith of the past facing his successor and discovering that the new guy has embraced the weaknesses Mike has ignored. No wonder Bad Boys 4 is already in the works. For the first time since they showed up, these characters feel like they have something to say. And then, probably, something to blow up. While walking away in slow motion.
As for this chap? We’ll see you in another piece, sir. And welcome back.
Now, that problem I mentioned. Surprising no one, it’s the same problem fiction in general always has, just accentuated because we’re circling back to the past a little. Namely the fact that every single one of these characters is a man and, Marcus and Mike aside, they’re all white.
Genre has often been hilariously terrible at diversity and this year is no exception. That is incredibly frustrating. So many people I know try and push the industry somewhere better and then this comes along and it all crashes down again.
Except, maybe, it doesn’t.
Let’s not forget a woman is doing a fantastic job of flying the TARDIS right now. (We’ll be circling round to catch up with the Doctor and her friends in the North (Which lots of planets have) in the next couple of weeks.) I’ve written elsewhere about just how great Jodie Whitaker is as the Doctor and she really, really is. So much so that she transcends the entirely justified argument that it’s better to create new iconic non-male and white roles than it is to cast non-white, non-male people in those roles. Even then, the endless cultural algebra never quite resolves and as a result it’s unsurprising that we default to older roles. We laud, or say we laud, Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers and Sarah Conner but Dark Fate tanked despite being brilliant. Likewise, Barbara Broccoli‘s comment that Bond could be any ethnicity (Yay!) was the sugar coated pill around him never being a woman (BOO!). What that means for Lashana Lynch’s 007 in No Time To Die is unclear but I get the awful feeling she shouldn’t be starting any long books.
Keep a very, very close eye on the Captain’s Biography series from Titan. Firstly because they’re immense fun (the ‘Edited by’ tag kills me every time) and secondly because they’re a useful canary. Or to put it another way, we’ll know the Pike-Era Enterprise show is a go (and I’m 99% sure it is), once the Chris Pike biography is announced…
Anyway, Janeway is a perfect fit for the Picard treatment. She successfully guided a disparate crew home across an incalculable distance, assisted in dealing a near-mortal blow to Starfleet’s most relentless enemy and happily accepted a promotion, something we know Picard struggled to do. I’d love to see a show following her in the same time period. Interestingly, and with typical eloquence, Kate Mulgrew is less sure. I can see why too. (Incidentally, Mulgrew is fantastic as the narrator of The Space Race, which I’ll be writing about the remainder of here shortly.)
Interestingly, one other character is going down the Picard route. A route she’s spent decades helping make more charitable…
DOROTHY FREAKING MCSHANE IS BACK. Teased last year in a trailer for the latest blu-ray release, Ace has been busy in the intervening decades. Now an actual philanthropist billionaire (and while ‘playgirl’ is perhaps not on the table, ‘genius’ surely is), she’s spent years making the world a better place. And then, the 13th Doctor comes to visit…
At Childhood’s End, out later this year, is about what happens next.
I am fascinated to see the relationship between these two women. The last time they met, Ace was instinctively brilliant and innocent and the Doctor a player of games. Now, arguably, their roles have been reversed. That, combined with the gender switch gives us the opportunity to explore the consequences of the Doctor’s existence and presence like never before. Plus the sheer amount of bad-ass per page is going to be off the CHARTS.
it isn’t enough. Especially when couched in the heartbreaking truth that there are so few female, LIGBTQIA+ or POC iconic characters that reviving them would, at best, be difficult.
But the tide really does seem to be turning or at the very least, shifting, Bad Boys, Gemini Man and Picard may not have a lot of superficial connective tissue but in reality they’re all desires to make peace with the past before the future arrives. Here’s hoping that peace is made soon. Because the future is long overdue and, even guided by old lions, it’s where I’m desperate to go.