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Three Takes #4: Michael Bay's "Bad Boys II"

In anticipation of the release of Bay's new film _Pain & Gain_, this week's column looks at a pop pulverizer.
Calum Marsh

Three Takes is a column dedicated to the art of short-form criticism. Each week, three writers—Calum Marsh, Fernando F. Croce, and Joseph Jon Lanthier—offer stylized capsules which engage, in brief, with classic and contemporary films.

BAD BOYS II (2003) 

If Tony Scott painted in primary-color blotches and smears, Michael Bay instead opts to detonate the bucket, his brand of ludicrous maximalism less a distinct visual style than simply the shortest route from containment to paint on the wall. In Bad Boys II, what passes as the vulgar auteur’s pop-cinematic opus, reds erupt across a cobalt-tinted Miami sky like million-dollar Pollockian splatters, every formal gesture a cinematic champagne toast to the profane and obscene. Like Neveldine/Taylor’s Crank, the preeminent Godardian riff on Bay’s (comparatively) classical template, mauvais gout seems as much a guiding principle as it is a point of pride, vulgarity gleefully indulged in both as a function of and logical end point to a substantial tradition of repugnant blockbuster spectacle. Fin du film, fin de cinema, contemporized and duly drained of its cumbersome ideology: “Shit just got real”, a generation’s alarmist declaration. But while Bay regards language as crude—ill-equipped for modern expression except as a jumble of subcultural slang and industry jargon—what he articulates visually has a simplicity, almost an elegance, that all but validates his bias against words. Its most emblematic images remain remarkably provocative: two black men, guns raised against (literal) oppressors, cast in relief against a klan-ignited cross burning brightly behind. That’s the central contradiction of Bad Boys II: though at heart a celebration of seemingly mindless indecorum, its very surfaces betray an awareness that representation is political. That cognitive dissonance is invigorating. —Calum Marsh

That cops Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) spend most of Bad Boys II attempting to pinch shut the constant pulse of ecstasy through Miami at its drug-lord source narratively confirms how conflicted the film becomes toward its own lysergic imagery. Vividly exaggerating the color schemes, whiplash camera swivels, and juxtapositions of vehicular Grand Guignol and domestic dramedy endemic to a particular strain of American blockbuster-dom (think of this as Lethal Weapon 2 post mild hallucinogen ingestion), the movie seems to grow sick of its own hyper-ethos swiftly—yet it can’t stop upping this ante, either. (Marcus: “This is some sick shit.” Mike: “Yeah, well...it’s about to get sicker.”) Toward the start, Michael Bay’s name is superimposed over a conflagrating cross as Mike and Marcus infiltrate a KKK meeting-cum-narcotics hand-off, a portentous alignment of auteurial agency with diegetic antagonism; soon after, friendly fire strikes Marcus in the posterior, rendering him not only impotent for the remainder of the running time but in no mood to confront the endless procession of cornea cornholing abuse to which he and Mike are subjected. Marcus’ above-ground pool twice tears asunder, releasing torrents of toxically vibrant green and blue; thinned blood sluices onto a negotiation table from a bucket full of body parts like errant Hawaiian Punch; and, in one of the film’s most screwball-y flourishes, Marcus grimaces at the sight of two (very obviously puppet) rats copulating in a Miami mansion basement made thick by teal-hued acid mist. Notwithstanding a few (botched) choruses of the Bad Boys theme song and the cathartic vandalization of a Haitian headshop whose owner has crucial information, only Miami’s vermin are permitted to enjoy any of the city’s specularized squalor and hedonism. Surreal but far from saturnalian, Bad Boys II frustrates us as it frustrates its main characters; police work has seldom appeared more hyperkinetic or less gleeful.  —Joseph Jon Lanthier

Early on, the camera spins and slithers through a teeming nightclub, all but rubbing against the sweaty, phosphorescent revelers; one unlucky dude overdoses on ecstasy and gets unceremoniously dumped in a rainy alley. Cue Nelly’s “Shake Ya Tailfeather.” Michael Bay’s aesthetic is a steroidal distillate for those pleasure-seekers sitting in the dark, and in Bad Boys II the peddler seems bored with his own heady substance. Retreading to the buddy-cop realm after the box-office disappointment of Pearl Harbor (2001), Bay keeps himself awake by spiking genre tropes with baroque grotesqueries, pushing the sequel closer to such classics of repellence as Frankenheimer’s 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), Aldrich’s The Choirboys (1977) and Eastwood’s The Rookie (1990) than to the original film. Accordingly, the “heroes” played by Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are not just mismatched partners, but a sociopathic lothario leering at a dead woman’s breasts and a family man reduced to impotence and a bruised ass. The tumult of highway chases—with the interplay of cars, trucks, boats, and helicopters offering a foretaste of the metallic cartwheeling of the Transformers films—is further decorated with stitched-up corpses dropping off a mortuary van. And where fellow crass auteur Sylvester Stallone stages his personal D-Day massacre in Rambo (2008), Bay envisions a SWAT raid on Cuba as a gaudy rectification of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Blazing filters, lunatic circular camera movements, promiscuous cathedral lighting, a greasy bad guy at one point made to look like Jesus: “some sort of visual code-breaking,” as someone says, or just a pop pulverizer scrambling to find ways to penetrate the eye? Whatever it thinks it’s doing, Bad Boys II—with its sequence of Hummers plowing through Cuban shantytowns providing enormously potent images of reckless Yankee imperialism—emerges as a devastating compendium of the vilest impulses of the early Bush aughts. Will Pain & Gain, set in the year Bay made his feature debut, be as arresting a summation of the worst of the nineties? —Fernando F. Croce


Three TakesMichael Bay
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