The movie Bad Boys was never a sure thing. Twenty-five years ago, when the first instalment in the now trilogy was released, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence were just two sitcom actors who were unproven commodities on the big screen. Director Michael Bay was a 30-year-old music video director whose most famous work was the popular "Got Milk?" advertising campaign. Bad Boys shouldn't have been a phenomenon, but through the sheer talent involved, it ended up capturing lightning in a bottle and launching three stars in the process – two of whom return in Bad Boys for Life, the latest film.
"I'm very into improv," Bay tells The National. "I started doing a lot when I was making commercials, then I was doing it with Will and Martin on Bad Boys.
"When I did the first Transformers, Steven Spielberg said, 'Michael, I'd like you to shoot the script.' I said, 'Steven, this is how I work. I have three great improv actors. The parents and Shia [LeBeouf]. Some of it's going to be terrible, and some of its going to be gems.' Then when he saw it, Steven said, 'You've got to keep the funny!'"
Bay's style has always given actors a space to find the humour amid copious explosions, but he has never had two more naturally funny actors in front of his camera than Smith and Lawrence. "There's not always a tonne of funny when a movie is written, but it evolves through the actors, making it open and shooting fast enough so you can do many different types of takes," Bay says.
To bring out the best in the duo, however, it wasn't about finding the funny. It was about getting the two actors to work together, rather than compete. Smith admits that at the time, he was worried Lawrence might steal his comedy thunder. "In the first movie, we were both coming off of our TV shows and we were both well known as comedians. When there's two comedians on the scene, somebody has to surrender the joke to the other or it just gets to be too much. I was terrified when we were working, telling Michael, 'Martin's getting all the jokes!' Michael's like, 'Dude, relax. Just balance the scene!' I was like, 'No! I'm funny, too!'," says Smith at a press conference to promote the new film. "In those moments, I learnt a lot about balancing scenes, and in this movie, I think that our chemistry is even better than it's ever been. The tuning of the drama and of the comedy is really spectacular. I love working with Martin because of that."
With Bay unable to return for the third film in their trilogy, the team recruited up-and-coming Moroccan-born Belgian directors Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi. While the duo are fans of Bay's films, they have a very different style behind the camera – something that was a relief to Smith and Lawrence. "When Adil and Bilall came in, that was something Jerry [Bruckheimer, the film's producer] and I talked about early on," says Smith.
"The perspective shift – Belgium by way of Morocco. They were 9 or 10 years old when the first movies came out. It was such a beautiful breath of fresh air to see the franchise with different eyes. They were able to handle paying homage to the originals, but also come from a completely new, completely unique perspective. They don't yell as much."
"Yes exactly," says Lawrence, in reference to
Bay's high-energy, rapid-paced filming style that continues to this day, as Bay often films as many different scenes as he can each day before the sun sets – a style used on the set of 6 Underground, parts of which were shot in Abu Dhabi.
But the two young directors, who are fans of the films, wanted this Bad Boys to be an homage to the action movies of the 1990s, something El Arbi says haven't been seen in a long time. "You see a lot of superhero movies are very extravagant, but stuff that is really grounded and close to the characters is something that's fresh again," he says.
Anxious to live up to their filmmaking heroes, Fallah and El Arbi say they felt less comfortable than they usually would when directing a movie. "The pressure was unbelievable, we had stress from day one," says Fallah. "We're just two punks from Belgium. We're not the big stars like them. They made those movies. It was really a challenge, but at the same time, they chose us for a reason, and we bring something to the table," says El Arbi.
With the new team in place, Smith and Lawrence were able to bring fresh ideas to the table, learning quickly which director would be receptive to which ideas.
“It was a joy working with these guys. They showed love every day. They showed everyone the same kind of attention and affection. It was beautiful to be on set and the environment they made was really comfortable for us,” says Lawrence.
“It’s like you have two parents with really unique points of view,” says Smith. “If you want to go out on the weekend, then you know which parent to ask, right? You just kind of figure out that, OK, Bilall likes it bigger and more exciting, and Adil is always saying ‘no, no, no’, so you say, ‘OK, Bilall, I’ve got this idea, man!’ You learn which parent will like the idea that you have.”
Bad Boys For Life is in UAE cinemas from today