There are some films that are so exponentially strange that they transcend the paltry question of whether they are good or bad. Usually such weird films "beyond good and evil" are small, little-known efforts that somehow manage to escape the conformist strictures of the mainstream industry.
But, in 2003, the prize for the most compellingly strange film goes to a big, loud, long, expensive blockbuster, the Simpson-Bruckheimer production Bad Boys II. It will likely take a few more viewings and a couple of years to fathom what this movie is really all about.
The Bad Boys series has lifted itself beyond a simple, Lethal Weapon-style template. Sure, our mismatched buddy cops, Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence), still bicker as they attempt to chase bad guys from Latin America (Jordi Molla's Tapia) and the former Soviet Union (Peter Stormare's Alexei).
Certainly, the ever-harried Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) is back, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Yes, there are blinding gun battles, enormous explosions, and a massive body count to make the faint-hearted despair over the casual amorality of modern entertainment.
But Bad Boys II offers so much more. There is a scene devoted to rats humping. There is endless talk of Marcus' erectile dysfunction. Some of the action scenes, involving naked corpses and gory decapitations, display the gruesomeness of horror movies and the perversity of pornography.
Leonard Maltin described the original Bad Boys (1995) as "a robust half hour padded into two hours". This time, the padding stretches to almost two and a half hours. But this inflation is less a sign of spectacle-gone-mad than the greater ambition now nurtured by director Michael Bay (Armageddon, 1998).
Bay, who is in some quarters regularly crucified as the embodiment of everything wrong with American cinema, is in his own way a virtuoso. His take on Hollywood conventions is inventive, edgy and, especially when it comes to the relentless gay subtext of this film, even a little subversive. He takes the kinetic, MTV style of Tony Scott (True Romance, 1993) and spins it into newer, flashier, sometimes near-abstract realms.
But what is so odd about the experience of watching Bad Boys II is to see Bay's garish talent put so fervently in the service of a story that is resolutely meaningless on any level. Until, that is, the truly over-the-top final half hour, a bizarre, militaristic fantasy that celebrates American intervention on foreign soil if in the name of a "just cause". Here the cause, overriding all racial tensions within law enforcement agencies, is Marcus' need to save his undercover kid sister, Syd (Gabrielle Union).
This is a film that will prompt painfully mixed feelings in most viewers. The sense that it is all a kinetic, jokey lark far removed from any reality is suddenly contradicted by a scene in which our renegade heroes demolish (in the course of a rousing car chase) hundreds of homes belonging to the Cuban poor, while Mike helpfully shouts: "Shoot at anything!"
In the other direction, such offended, ideological thoughts are just as swiftly undermined by the next explosion of banter between Marcus and Mike – a relationship that includes such gems as when Marcus, high on ecstasy pills, puts his arms around his partner and pleads, "This is not gay shit, it's man shit".
MORE Bay: The Rock
© Adrian Martin September 2003