Michael Bay’s feature film debut, 1995’s Bad Boys, still stands as one of his best, most purely enjoyable pieces of cinema, with a solid story, effective action sequences, and that famous chemistry between his two hilarious lead performers. The plot is no more or no less than what you’d find on a typical episode of Miami Vice. Two Miami cops are searching for a massive stash of heroin that’s been stolen from a secure police evidence vault. But it’s personal to them because the missing contraband was from the biggest bust of their professional lives. Was it an inside job? How could a crew have orchestrated such a brazen heist? Mike Lowrey (Will Smith, still best known as The Fresh Prince at that point in his career) is a smooth-talking, womanizing, Porsche-driving, trust-fund inheriting super-cop who loves to shoot first and ask questions later. Marcus Burnett, an impossibly thin Martin Lawrence who would later explode as a comedic force and was starring on his own hit TV show Martin at the time of the film’s release, is Lowery’s beleaguered partner, a married cop with kids and a house and a mortgage and responsibilities – the exact opposite of Lowrey. The insanely entertaining rapport that Smith and Lawrence shared on this film went a long in making it as successful as it was. There’s a hot chick thrown into the mix (Tea Leoni at her sexiest), a shady bad guy (Tcheky Karyo, best known at the time for his transcendent work in The Bear), and a deep supporting cast (always a Bay specialty), which included Michael Imperioli, Joe Pantoliano, Theresa Randle, Nestor Serrano, Marg Helgenberger, and ex-basketball great John Salley. It’s an A-to-B-to-C narrative, told in fast-paced fashion, with the inherent charm of Smith and the barbed hostility of Lawrence always shining through in every scene. Throw in Mark Mancina’s indelible original score and bam!
Bay was coming out of the world of music videos and commercials before tackling his first feature project, an arena that he had completely conquered, so it was inevitable that he would try his hand at directing a big budget movie. After catching the eyes of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer due to a music video that he had shot for them for Days of Thunder, Bay was recruited by the uber-producers, and his whiz-bang career got off to a fast, propulsive start. Originally conceived as a buddy-movie vehicle for John Lovitz and Dana Carvey(!), Bay ditched some of the older drafts, hired a new writing team, and went to work at crafting an unpretentious throwback to the 70’s & 80’s cycle of rambunctious cop films; think Freebie and the Bean for modern times. He even famously paid for the film’s elaborate and utterly amazing final explosion, telling the studio that he had to have it just-so because the image was “Trailer Ready.” After the film recuperated its costs, Bay was reimbursed by the studio for his out-of-pocket-fireball-expenses, or so the old story goes. Simpson and Bruckheimer were about to have their big comeback year in 1995, as along with Bad Boys they’d release Crimson Tide and Dangerous Minds, while the first Bad Boys would start an obscenely successful relationship between the director and the producers. Bay never allowed the action to sag in Bad Boys; right from the film’s priceless pre-credit opening bit, he made it clear that his film was going to be aggressive, vulgar, in your face, and lots of fun.
One of Bay’s premiere strengths as a popcorn moviemaker is that he genuinely knows how to make his films feel big, with striking clarity and depth of field, constantly opting for telephoto lenses and almost always shooting in full 2.40:1 widescreen (Bad Boys is the only film of his to be framed 1.85:1). And when it comes to CGI, he demands the absolute best from his technicians; if it’s not “photo-real,” he doesn’t want it included. His sun-bleached, primary color infused, overly saturated visual style got its start with cinematographer Howard Atherton calling the shots behind the camera, and when viewed in retrospect, it’s interesting to note how Bad Boys has that Bay feel, but it’s a decidedly “early” Bay feel, as his calling-card aesthetic would really take shape with The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, and Bad Boys 2. Bay loves to create maximum impact images, almost always opting for shots with intense visual elegance and sophistication. The original Bad Boys feels like a student film when compared to the insanely over the top sequel and the complicated visual structure of Bay’s Transformers movies. Bay is has earned his status as an auteur because of his instantly identifiable style that matches his testosterone-fueled narratives of impossible heroics, mixed with that insane brand of visual mania that he’s become known for. I’d love to see him go back for a third helping of buddy-movie antics, as I really and truly feel that these were the movies he was born to make.