A quarter of a century has passed since commercial & music video director Michael Bay made his first feature, and rapper and sitcom actor Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith made his big push into movie stardom, with 1995's Bad Boys, a big, bombastic action-comedy extravaganza that is, by Bay standards, unusually tidy and legible. Those 25 years weigh heavily on Bad Boys for Life, third film in the series (Bad Boys II came out in 2003; it is not especially tidy nor legible, though with five Transformers and one The Island having come out in the meantime, it almost looks classicist), and the one that has decided with all earnestness that the right thing to do with a franchise that has only ever existed to allow Smith and Martin Lawrence to scream jokes at each other over the sound of gunshots is to make it a meditation on the aging process and the increasing number of regrets that will accrue to any human life that has arrived in its sixth decade.

The screaming jokes are still there, of course. That's one of the things that's weird about Bad Boys for Life - not bad, just weird - the way it tries to combine being a big damn action movie with being a cozy little character story. Also weird is that it almost works. Bay has handed off directorial duties (though he remained to do a wonderfully distracting cameo) to the Belgian filmmaking duo of Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah, credited as "Adil & Bilall", and they've brought a much smaller aesthetic to the project. It's a much clearer approach to filmmaking than Bay has used since the '90s, with relatively fluid continuity editing and everything. I wouldn't dare to call Bad Boys for Life sedate or any such thing, but it's small enough and slow enough that it leaves room for things to pause for a character beat every now and then. The Bay of 1995 would do that; the Bay of 2003 was increasingly unlikely to do that; the Bay of 2020 is, I think, genuinely incapable of doing that, if his screeching nightmare of an action movie 6 Underground is any indication.

That's one of the things Adil & Bilall are particularly good at, in fact. The style of the new movie does a fairly good job of replicating the general stylistic tendencies of action filmmaking circa 1995 and 2003, not necessarily copying either Bad Boys or Bad Boys II directly, but capturing the vibe of their respective eras. So the first half-or-so of the movie has a very particular '90s feel in the slightly flat and soft lighting, as well as the dash of manly melodrama that keeps poking up, and the willingness to merely jog rather than run flat-out. The second half runs flat-out, and is tiresome in other ways. But most of the unexpected "we are old farts" material is in the first half, where it has room to breathe.

Anyway, the story: Miami detectives Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) are both in their 50s at this point; Marcus is old enough that his daughter is old enough to get married. And that fact has him seriously thinking about retiring from the fast-moving life of a cop, particularly a cop whose partner is a risk-taking hothead in love with the "bad boys" image that they pair has cultivated during a storied career. Mike finds this all irritating and horrible, and just as things are coming to a head between the men, Mike is shot in the gut by a Mexican assassin, Armando (Jacob Scipio), son of the psychopathic cartel leader Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo). Isabel has just escaped from prison, with revenge on her mind: Mike was the cop responsible for capturing her late husband, and she wants him dead, after he's seen all of the other various judges and lawyers and such involved in the case. We learn this long before the protagonists do; Mike ends up in the hospital for ages, long enough that Marcus retires behind his back, and when he emerges, it's to find that no leads of any substance have been found to track down his assailant. With nothing to occupy his mind but rage, Mike dives into the investigation himself, over the objections of Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who reluctantly allows him to team up with the high-tech Advanced Miami Metro Operations group, or AMMO (a depressingly plausible acronym), consisting of enthusiastic Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), smug Rafe (Charles Melton), and nerdy beefcake Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), all under the command of Rita (Paola Nuñez), Mike's proverbial "one that got away". Though it's not so much that she got away, as that he shoved her away for fear of having to form a real emotional attachment. Between her and Marcus, that's two exes that Mike's going to have to reconcile with over the course of shooting at things, driving cars very fast, and leaping away from explosions, and the film has more where that came from.

It's not high art, but the film's attempts to explore how being a supercop at 50 is very different than being a supercop at 25 are at least well-meant. Not much comes of this, in part because Smith and Lawrence aren't much up to it. Smith is barely hiding his boredom with the material, and given the amount of brand-new backstory he's had dumped on him (much of it trying very hard to generate some emotional resonance), that boredom is deadly in some very crucial late scenes. Lawrence is certainly more energetic, but he was also never the stand-out in these films, the panicky comic figure next to Smith's sarcastic badass (though it's fun to remember that in 1995, Lawrence was the bigger star, and received top billing). Given how generic Marcus's motivations are, Lawrence doesn't have any particular challenges to face, so he doesn't really screw anything up; but he also doesn't have the personality to turn Marcus into anything but a stock figure. The four members of AMMO, clearly positioned to serve as the foundation for a Fast & Furious ensemble-style reinvention of this franchise, in the event that this film's sequel hook catches anything, are painfully dull police procedural clichés, other than Rita (and to be clear: she's a cliché, just not necessarily a cliché of this specific genre), and certainly not enough to fill in the gaps when the very muted but still present Smith/Lawrence chemistry is missing.

It's an okay action movie, at least. There's a motorcycle chase scene where it even rises up to "quite good", a great reminder that practical vehicle stunts have a kind of ineffable presence to them, with the directors and editors Dan Lebental and Peter McNulty honoring continuity of movement and legible spatial relationships even when they're flying around the space at breakneck speed. By the last half-hour, it has gotten expectedly loud and tedious, and the final shootout/helicopter crash sequence is by some margin the least exciting setpiece in the film, in part because it's obliged to do story work that it's not equipped for. But everything else here (and with 124 minutes to go around, there's a decent amount of action even with the decent quantity of talking scenes) is pretty fun. Maybe not always especially creative or spectacular, but fun enough for a midwinter release.

As for the sniping buddy cop banter that has been this franchise's calling card - the result of putting two sitcom stars in the lead roles, perhaps - I'm not the person to ask. I didn't find it funny in 1995 and found it miserable in 2003, and I don't like it now. Lawrence is loud, but not especially amusing, and Smith's on autopilot to such a degree that all of his one-liners feel like they've been laughed at in advance on our behalf. The thing is, Bad Boys for Life is not  very fleet movie: like its main characters, it has stiffness in the joints and slow reaction times, and there's a distinct gracelessness to it. Not that Bay's films were graceful, but they at least moved fast enough (especially Bad Boys II) that you couldn't always notice the clunkiness and the mechanical quality of the comedy. Here, it comes across as very mechanical indeed, stripping away what little character the film might have taken from its predecessors. I don't want to pretend that this besmirches a strong legacy, and it is anyway still better than the second film. But one always hopes that a years-later will have some kind of personable sparkle to raise it above "eh, that was a movie" level, and plugging Smith and Lawrence into a bog-standard "I'm too old for this shit" template isn't doing it.