The world is too messed up to obsess over bad movies as much as we do; isn’t it time we obsess over good ones? In his monthly column You Have To See This, Chuck Winters reaches into his pile of flawed, forgotten, or just plain fascinating gems to figure out what makes them tick and what makes them matter.
Before Transformers, before Jack Sparrow, before we were told to shake our tailfeathers and before Big Momma and before ugly-ass ailens were WELCOMED TO EARTH with a punch in the face, there was Bulletproof Hearts.
Bulletproof Hearts was a spec script written by George Gallo in the 80s, before he broke through with Midnight Run. It was about two New York cops—a ladies man and a family man—who had to switch places with each other in order to bust up a heroin ring. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer picked it up in ’86; the title was eventually changed to Bad Boys and the producing duo had set Dana Carvey (hot off Wayne’s World) and Jon Lovitz to star. With only $20 million to play with, they tapped a then-unknown Michael Bay to direct. He was far from battle tested; at that point, he was probably best known as the guy who directed the music video for “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls. But they had done well picking talent from the MTV pool before; surely this would work out too.
In January of ’93, the production was enough of a clusterfuck that The LA Times couldn’t resist teeing off on it. The short of it is that Bay—whom the piece is so dismissive of, it only mentions him once and spells his damn name wrong—didn’t know how to work with Lovitz and Carvey, Carvey wasn’t comfortable playing a womanizing playboy, and the whole thing just refused to click. (Also, it turns out noted sex offender James Toback was involved in the production, just to make things really awkward.) At the end of it, Bruckheimer claims that everything would be back in place by next January, but Simpson expresses doubt, and the piece in general makes them look like laughingstocks; two has-been producers in over their heads that hadn’t been able to get a production before cameras in years.
Time bore Bruckheimer out, though. By June of ’94, Bad Boys—which had moved from Disney’s Hollywood Pictures banner to Columbia Pictures—was shooting with a new script credited to Michael Barrie, Jim Mulholland, and Doug Richardson. Instead of a team-up between a piping-hot SNL cast member and a beloved SNL alumnus, though, they had The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin, two untested black leads in a time when the prevailing notion was that the general public didn’t want to watch movies with black leads, period. I can’t imagine how anyone in the Hollywood establishment, outside of the production itself, thought this was going to work.
Let’s jump ahead 5-6 years: Will Smith is the biggest movie star on the planet, Martin Lawrence is holding his own with Blue Streak and Big Momma’s House (at least as far as audiences are concerned), and film critic circles everywhere have derided Michael Bay as The Devil—literally, in case you forgot. I had just kicked ass at Color Night, which was a Field Day-esque event my high school held for students and faculty. I had adrenaline coursing through my veins and nobody to hang out with, so my mom drove me to Blockbuster Video to pick up a movie. I spent a good half-hour scanning the new releases trying to find something before I gave up and checked out the older movies under Action / Adventure. Usually when I got that far without finding anything, it meant I was going home empty-handed…but that night, Bad Boys jumped out at me. Jerry Bruckheimer productions were a staple of weekend hangouts with my dad, and The Rock and Armageddon were particular favorites. So Bad Boys seemed like it would hit the spot.
When you love movies like I do, you don’t have one single favorite film; you have a litany of go-to favorites that serve different needs and purposes. There are films that make you laugh, films that make you think, films that get your blood pumping, and so on. But even at that level, no matter what, it always comes down to one movie; the gateway drug that set you on this path. Ask most nerds my age, it would probably be Star Wars. For others, it might have been Blade Runner, or Jurassic Park, or Pulp Fiction. Whatever the movie, they walked in one way, young and impressionable, and they walked out completely rewired.
Bad Boys, the buddy cop movie that was allegedly directed by Satan, was my Star Wars.
That video up above is (most of) the opening scene of the film, putting its primary appeal front and center: Lawrence and Smith bantering their asses off and kicking the crap out of some thugs. Ever since 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon popularized the genre, the cornerstone of any good buddy cop movie has been the chemistry of its leads. Carvey and Lovitz would’ve had great chemistry too, but what Smith and Lawrence brought to the table was a sense of physicality and authority. When they take down the carjackers, you feel those hits. When they pull their sidearms, you know they’re not messing around. With Carvey and Lovitz, Bay would be making a comedy with some action in it. With Smith and Lawrence, Bay could make an action movie.
And in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last two decades, the reason nobody spells Michael Bay with an “e” anymore is because the man can make a god damned action movie.
Buddy cop movies have never been about proper police procedure, but here, Bay isn’t even pretending to give a damn. He knows the point of this film is the cathartic rush the viewer gets from the good guys blowing up the bad guys’ shit. As an avowed fan of Raising Arizona and West Side Story, he’s aiming to make the most absurd, theatrical version of that rush possible. Bad Boys ate a lot of shit from critics on release for being filmed on stock synthesized from pure uncut cocaine but with a script like the one Bay had to shoot, I’d argue that nothing would be more insulting to the audience than class and subtlety.
Let’s break this down from a pure synoptic standpoint. Mike Lowrey (Smith) is a smooth, passionate, vain cop. His partner, Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), is a harried, frustrated family man. They’ve got a reputation around their precinct for being Loose Cannons who Get Results. They recently made a marquee heroin bust (which we never see) that gets stolen out of the evidence locker by Fouchet (Tcheky Karyo), working with a dirty former cop. Said former cop takes a couple of keys of dope for himself, throws a party with Mike’s escort friend Max, who drags her non-escort roommate/BFF Julie (Téa Leoni) along because they were supposed to hang that night and she didn’t want to break it off. So, sure, mai-tais and prostitution, whatevs. Anyway, Fouchet finds out about this, whacks Max and the dirty cop, and Julie barely manages to get away.
If you think nobody here comes off all that likable save for Julie, you’re not crazy. I’ll get into this more in a bit, but as I’ve implied, the leads are salvaged through sheer force of personality, and while Fouchet’s motivations as a character are a bit thin—he’s literally just “powerful French drug kingpin who’s in Miami for some reason”—Karyo gives him a nice, interesting moment of shame and regret before he kills Max.
Anyway, Max told Julie that Mike Lowrey is the only person she would trust if she was ever in trouble, so Julie calls him, except Mike’s busy getting his ass knocked out while investigating a lead. Julie’s hysterical, having, you know, witnessed her best friend get killed, so Marcus has to pretend to be Mike lest she leave town. They’re then forced to keep up with this charade because…So Mike has to move into Marcus’s house because there’s a chance Fouchet knows where Marcus lives (though little is done with this), while Marcus has to pretend to go away on special assignment. Mike seems to be having fun hanging with Marcus’ kids but starts bitching about it in the very next scene because the second act is supposed to be about growing tensions. Meanwhile, we learn that Julie is a vegetarian on moral grounds, yet she has no problem blowing protective custody at Mike’s apartment to go murder the guy who shot her friend, and then complains about the two of them not doing a good enough job of protecting her in the middle of a car chase. Eventually Fouchet kidnaps Julie, and plans to hold her hostage until the deal is complete instead of killing her right away because that wouldn’t be fair to Mike and Marcus I guess. They save the girl, kill the bad guy, and don’t learn a damn thing in the process.
It’s worth noting that I hadn’t revisited this movie in years, and on review, I don’t know how a story gets any more scatterbrained without dipping into surrealism. Bay would have to have done a line of snow for every hour he was on set just to get a foot in the head of whoever pieced that homunculus of a script together. His contempt for it is so palpable it leaks into the movie proper; when our leads arrive at the scene of the heist, Marcus points out the human-sized vent that the drugs were smuggled out of and Mike calls it stupid. And in his commentary, Bay claims that he instructed Leoni to have her character catch onto Mike and Marcus’ dumbass ruse well before it was properly revealed to her.
Let’s talk about Julie for a second: This was a breakout role for Téa Leoni (currently playing the title role in the CBS drama Madame Secretary) and it’s not hard to see why. There’s only so much she can do when her character is written so inconsistently, but she seems to roll with Smith and Lawrence’s remarkable energy in a way that makes her seem like a part of the team at times instead of just a fragile third wheel. Going back to Color Night, I’d never seen a modern action movie narrative, which is so traditionally male-dominated, have the so-called damsel in distress—who, by the way, is nobody’s love interest—decide “Fuck this,” grab a gun, and try to take out the bad guy on her own. Never mind that she ultimately demands rescue. Never mind that, in retrospect, the poorly-written path that got her there paints her as a crazy person who makes even more trouble for the male heroes. Never mind that the ghost of Carrie Fisher just smacked me on the back of the head. Back then, this was so fucking cool to see.
Of course, if I’m going to play that card, then I should probably point out the ways this movie is regressive. There’s a gay panic scene between Julie and Marcus-as-Mike, where she points out all the pictures of Real Mike in Real Mike’s apartment and wonders if they’re pictures of Marcus-as-Mike’s lover. Smarter people than me are equipped to discuss homoeroticism in buddy cop movies, and between this and a similar (and far less defensible) scene from the sequel, it feels like Bay’s just taking the piss. What really helps is that for this scene, Leoni plays it so nonchalantly that the joke feels (at least to me) less about homophobia and more about Marcus being a stupid asshole. (Of course, the most punishment he ever sees for being a stupid asshole is feeling briefly uncomfortable for our entertainment, boo friggin’ hoo.) Way more problematic is the convenience store scene later on, which is just…astonishing. Basically a nervous Middle-Eastern stereotype of a convenience store clerk (played by Shaun Toub—what’s up, Yinsen?) sees two armed black men enter his store, and, well…
It’s a somewhat-racist portrayal of a probably-racist dude with a little extra sprinkling of gay panic, it’s so wrong, and God forgive me, I laugh every time thanks to Toub just nailing that character, down to the shaky hand, the crazed look in his eye and that epic battle cry of “FREEZE MOTHER-BEETCHES!” Bless him.
The casting is a big part of what makes this movie work against all odds; Bay (with casting directors Francine Maisler and Lynn Kressel) packed the ensemble with people who could just go. That includes seasoned vets like Karyo (probably best known from La Femme Nikita) as the villain, Joe Pantoliano as the platonic ideal of The Pissed Off Captain, and Marg Helgenberger as his foil, the Internal Affairs captain who may or may screw him at the drop of a hat. (Outside of arguably Julie, this movie doesn’t do too hot with women either.) But it’s not a shock to me that a lot of the bit players—including Toub, Michael Imperioli, Kevin Corrigan, Frank John Hughes, and Saverio Guerra—went on to character actor careers ranging from strong to solid. He gives them room to play too; you can almost feel where Bay told them to toss out their terrible scripts and just riff. The result gives the film a loose, energetic personality that a lot of other buddy cop movies of the day just didn’t have.
And when it’s time for the film to start kicking ass, Bay, of course, goes out of his way to make every shot the most epic shot possible. If there’s a reason for him to put a filter on it, shoot it at an angle, slow it down, or—naturally—blow it up, he’ll run with it. In his commentary, Bay admits, no, boasts that he and his line producer (the guy who’s responsible for keeping the production on budget) didn’t get along. He hated the poor guy so much he made him play a brutalized dead body in an early scene. Again, no surprise; this film was shot for $20 million. Fun action movies have been made for less, but that’s still barely anything for a mainstream production, and you can feel Bay pushing every dollar.
Luckily for him (and, it turns out, everyone), he had a secret weapon. Composer Mark Mancina created frighteningly catchy leitmotifs for the film that were adaptable to any situation, allowing him to gracefully shift between moods and even styles. The score over the comedy scenes feel nice and complimentary, punctuating the jokes without suffocating them, but once the film hits the gas, so does Mancina, who develops his themes into a full-blown Zimmer-esque superhero movie score. It’s arguably one of the greatest action movie scores ever written. (In fact, it was so great that when Mancina was replaced by a clearly bored Trevor Rabin for the sequel, some dude went ahead and did impressive fan edits of the legendary freeway chase and other scenes using Mancina’s music.)
The final result blew my teenage mind. By the time it was nearly over, I realized that I wanted to be an action movie director; I wanted to make people feel the way Michael Bay had just made me feel. I always knew how silly that sounded when you compared Bad Boys to other Actually Good and Creative Stories that inspired other people to make films of their own, and this retrospective forced me to do a lot of thinking about why this movie inspired me, and whether or not it still did.
Here’s what I came up with: There are better action movies than Bad Boys out there, some of which cost less to make and/or were far less cynical. However, I believe few films are made without some amount of passion. They take too long, and they cost too much money. I remember in film school struggling to get simple shots for my crappy student film, then going to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 and wondering if I should quit. And that was with what I thought was a good script! Sinking all that time and money into a script you know is garbage has to be the most demoralizing thing in the world. That’s what Michael Bay was facing, and instead of giving in, he decided to try and salvage something of it by pushing and playing. In a weird way, is this not what cinema is about at its core? Using the moving image to create a unique and powerful experience? No, Bay’s style doesn’t work for many, and God knows I understand why, but in the end, it still worked for me.
I may not be anywhere near directing my own action movies, but I’m alright with where I currently am as a storyteller and as a critic, and I’m more than alright with the friends and friendly acquaintances I’ve made along the way, people I’ve known from this site and outside of it, people who love this column or just plain love me. Bad Boys led me here, for better, not worse.
Some devil Michael Bay turned out to be.
Thank you all for supporting You Have To See This‘ run on Deadshirt. I hope to pick it up again somewhere else one day, but it’s been a privilege to do it for as long as I have here. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter for my scattered thoughts, or you can just check out my Letterboxd page for reviews and lists and stuff. Hope I see you all around!