Reflecting on Bad Boys II in 2020 (or, How the Bad Boys Franchise Helped Normalize Police Misconduct in America)

Bad Boys 2 enttitlement

Bad Boys for Life, the third in the Bad Boys franchise, just hit theaters. So it’s a good time to remind you that Michael Bey’s sequel Bad Boys II was a big red warning flag of all that is wrong with America in 2020. The movies are about two cops who routinely break the law in order to get justice. It’s a glorification of the mindset of Blue Lives Matter, but with a twist—they’re black.

I wonder if casting two men of color as the bad boys gets the franchise a pass for what is otherwise a celebration of police brutality and racial stereotypes. As long as the bad cops don’t remind us of the racist white cops who have been terrorizing black communities for years decades centuries, the audience feels safe in sinking into this story.  Consider if the Bad Boys franchise had been cast, as originally planned, with two white actors, how everything would be viewed by audiences today.

I’m going to walk you through the second movie and I hope you’ll ask yourself, what makes this OK? What makes this the kind of story we want shaping the culture? And how has it?

(Bad Boy II SPOILERS GALORE. I REWATCHED THIS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO)

I saw Bad Boys II in the theater when it came out in 2003, as part of a social activity with my Americorps team. These were Southern liberals, all passionate enough about social change to take a year out of their careers to help disadvantaged youth in Atlanta’s public schools. I remember this very clearly because I was shocked that none of the others watching the movie had any issues with the film at all.

Bad Boys II police brutality
No warrant, but they shoot them all anyway.

There are two horrible scenes in particular that show how  much what it means to be an American (in the idealistic, “liberty or death!” sense of the term) had already become lip service by 2003.  But I’ll give you a rundown on the whole flick, because nearly every scene has some bellwether of the awful place America has come to.

The Beystrosity of Bad Boys II

The first scene of this Beystrosity shows a stereotypical drug dealer with his two stereotypically stupid bimbos (“wanna see his gun?”).  The first bad guys the bad boys take on are the safest of targets—a clan rally.  This was before America had normalized white nationalism wearing the cloak of the “alt-right” and suit and tie. The use of force is totally fair (in this scene), the characters are immediately charming and funny—this isn’t a bad movie, it’s a bad framework for viewing the world.

In Martin Lawrence and Will Smith’s entry scene, the police save one another, establishing that blue-lives-brotherhood vibe that is a little creepy in the current politic. Their banter both celebrates toxic masculinity and challenges it with the protagonist’s back and forth about trauma and letting go of anger (WOOOSAH is the best word in this movie, no sarcasm. WOOOOOOSAAAAH!)

Bad Boys II: Drugs Are Sexy! No Wait, Drugs Are Bad!

Martin Lawrence Bad Boys 2
Martin Lawrence plays ecstasy use for laughs while the film treats the drug as dangerous

The film consistently glamorizes drug use, even as the sale and distribution of those drugs is used to justify the bad boys being bad cops. The club where the drugs are distributed is like six dudes and sixty models, mostly ravers kissing pills into each others mouths as if that shit goes down fine without water. It’s almost as if the audience wants to take pleasure in drug culture while condemning it. This was my first red flag watching the film in 2003. The presumed framework fits with the narrative of the Christian right: drugs are fun, but like all sinful things they lead to dangerous ends. Later in the movie one of the bad boys accidentally ingests ecstasy, and we’re treated to Lawrence experiencing an MDMA high. But poison control tells the captain that they have to “keep him cool or he’ll get brain-damaged.”

The drug owner says “Ecstasy fucks them up” when a guy ODs in his club, then they decide to dump the guy’s (still alive) body “around the block.” I’m not going to digress into the ways in which this is probably  one of the most offensively stereotypical depictions of drug use from that time period, instead I want to focus on how these stereotypes justify authoritarianism.

Bad Boys II Setting up Fundamentalist, Binary Thinking

Notice how important it is that the adversaries must be stereotypes. The drugs are all deadly and the dealers are all psychopaths. If the antagonists are nuanced then the lawlessness of the protagonists can’t be justified. It’s because these are the baddest of baddies that the bad boys are needed to break the rules and punish the wicked. If this sounds familiar maybe it’s because it’s the same narrative Fox news sings to my grandfather to help him fall asleep at night.

Cut into this rave of girls in makeup showing their panties, the Will Smith character calls his source and threatens him vaguely—ooooh, he’s a bad boy!  But violating the Constitution is presumably justified because: drug dealer.

Normalizing Police Brutality and Corruption

In addition to the cliche clansmen and drug dealers, there’s also some cliche Russian money launderers and Haitian street thugs (“a buncha pirates! [they] steal anything”). After an empowering scene where the female lead starts a car chase, there’s an exchange about whether to shoot first or show their badge. The movie sets it up that any reasonable viewer will side with shoot first (save the bad-ass sister!).  Incidentally the car chases in this scene would have had massive casualties IRL, but that’s just another day for law enforcement in America.

The conflict in the next scene is driven by one of the bad boys getting angry that someone at the DEA (his sister) won’t break policy and share information about her case. Again the assumption that rules shouldn’t apply to him. It’s OK if his rule-breaking endangers his sister, because he is rule-breaking in order to protect his sister.

Our next scene with the bad boys has Will Smith’s character arguing in favor of using lethal force. Then the low-level drug dealer is confronted, and the cops obtain information by destroying the guy’s shop. They sure are bad cops, er, boys.

glamorizing gun violence in Bad Boys 2
After destroying his shop, they feel entitled to steal his product

We all love vigilantes in 2020. We all love the anti-hero, breaking the rules, finding justice outside of the law. Superheroes are the epitome of this paradox that shows like The Boys and Watchmen tackle. But in the Bad Boys franchise, the characters aren’t vigilantes, they are police officers, protectors of power, defenders of property. Numerous amendments to the US Constitution are to address injustices perpetuated by police. When police officers commit crimes, yes they are “bad boys” but I’m not cheering for them. No ecstasy bust justifies pissing on civil liberties.

“With Us or Against Us” Dichotomy

The movie doesn’t grapple with these things. Of course the boss gets mad, but it’s about his budget, and “at least no cops died,” reminding us it’s the blue lives that matter. People’s rights aren’t a concern for the captain. Like some kind of Trumpster Youtuber circa now, the captain says, “I do not want these animals taking over our city. So I want you to do whatever it takes, but do it now.” For our “heroes” it’s “hip” (IMDB’s word choice) that the boys violate the few rights we’ve managed to all agree to. But it’s OK, the narrative presumes, because they’re on “our” side. Right and wrong isn’t what matters, because we must save the public from “animals.” This is another right-wing narrative straight out of the nightly news.

Probably around the time Michael Bey and Martin Lawrence were pitching Bad Boys II to funders, George W. Bush was famously saying “you are either with us or against us.” And that kind of thinking has become so obviously dangerous in the current politics. But in 2003 it was accepted, commonplace enough to make Bad Boys II a hit. And still prevalent enough for Will Smith to claim it is consistently the characters his fans wanted him to revive.

The Drug Bust Scene from Bad Boys II that Exemplifies America’s Awful Present

Bad boys don't need a warrant
Bad Boys don’t need a warrant

The bad boys break down the doors, guns out. They announce they are the police, but the people inside don’t hear them. The homeowners say, “Who that? Who in my house?” The police officer, having fun with his job, says, “The devil, who’s asking?” The shootout continues, with comic relief provided by Martin Lawrence’s character’s fear for his life. After one of the Haitians takes a bullet to the eye the homeowner says, “they killed the boy! They’re killing everybody!”

In this scene the police do not have a warrant.

Bad Boys II kill homeowners
Homeowner never finds out this bullet to the brain comes from a cop

They are breaking and entering. From the homeowner’s perspective, this is a home invasion and our heroes are murders, the likes of the rape-y goons from A Clockwork Orange.

I am from Florida. “Stand your ground” wasn’t a thing in 2003, but I promise you that if you broke into my parent’s house and claimed to be the devil, you’d be shot. That is exactly the situation for which most homeowners keep guns, no? But we’re just supposed to cheer along with this, because the police are the good guys, the drug dealers are “bad guys” and therefore human rights don’t apply to the latter. As recent as 2003, Americans had already forgotten that a person is innocent until proven guilty, rooting for cops to use gross excessive force.

The bad boys manage to not kill one of the Haitians, then they kick him in the face (WOOOSAH!) and threaten him at gunpoint. It turns out the Haitian was willing to talk all along, and they easily get the evidence off the suspect they killed. But they’re just a bunch of filthy immigrants, right, America?

For no reason at all the script feels the need to mention that the antagonist is “the biggest supplier of drug cash to Castro.” Yikes, socialism! Good thing these corrupt cops are here to save us.

This scene is followed by some slightly homophobic comic relief (honestly the humor is more in the misunderstanding) wherein toxic masculinity wins out over the partner attempting to share his feelings.

Illegal Wiretaps Necessary to Defeat “Monster” Immigrants in Bad Boys II

Next the cops bribe another cop into illegally wiretapping a phone.  The justification? Will Smith’s bad boy cop: “Dog, this is what we do.” The tense question of the scene between the evil Russian club owner and the evil Cuban drug dealer, is “Will our heroes escape the illegal wiretap they shouldn’t be setting up in the first place?” But instead I’m wondering, will there be a single immigrant in this movie who isn’t a criminal and/or sociopath?

Without a hint of irony, the antagonist says “at the end, what else do we have but friendship, trust, honor. Without this, we are no more than beasts.” Yet the entire film is about justifying men acting without honor because the villains they are facing are the beasts that racist stereotypes perpetuate.

Ultimately it turns out in the world of Bad Boys II  that the KKK, the Russians and the immigrant drug dealers were in cohoots all along! Someone call Hannity; it’s a perfect story for Fox News.

To extort information from one of the KKK guys the bad cops fabricate evidence that they threaten to blackmail him with. But, the movie implies, extortion and blackmail are OK if the victims are racist. Karmic justice! They put him in the trunk of a car as he says, “I got my rights.” Played for laughs. Does he have his rights? Who is laughing now?

Another car chase, but the bad boys kill the guy they were chasing, destroying their lead. And Captain is mad again, not about the vehicular manslaughter and the kidnapping, but about the bureaucracy he has to deal with because of all these violations of the law. 

Will Smith’s character convinces the Hispanic cops to crash their car into the mortuary. The cop doesn’t want “another ding on [his] file” but does it anyway because “screw it, just the price of cop business.” Lawlessness is both normalized and assumed necessary to get justice.

In the name of protecting the main female character (played by the delightful Gabrielle Union), the bad boys say “fuck that” to getting a warrant and ultimately to the state department’s efforts to “handle things diplomatically.” Is that not the exact zeitgeist of the 2016 election? Rather than slow, measured solutions, the country said ‘fuck that” and took a hard line toward lawlessness. The scene ends in a moment of blue lives bromance as the cops decide “we just gotta do it ourselves.”

The Cuba Chase Scene from Bad Boys II that Haunts Me to this Day

Hummer destroys Cuban shacks, chase scene in Bad Boys 2
Bad Boys II

Maybe this just stuck out to me because I have Cuban heritage, but the final chase scene in this movie is atrocious. The setup is that the bad boys have gone to Cuba to catch the big bad Ecstasy dealer (eye roll), at his mansion in the hills. A good car chase usually involves destruction of property, people jumping out of the way—lookout, there’s glass! Oh no, the apple cart! But in this scene the “good guys” (bad boys) drive their Hummers (their fucking HUMMERS) through a shanty town. And when I say through I don’t mean through streets I mean they drove their cars through the walls of peoples’ houses. On purpose. There is a typical Cuban thing where people hang their clothes out to dry between neighboring houses; so these are not only drug shacks, they are where families live. These are poor people who don’t have any kind of insurance. This kind of destruction would be devastating to that community, not to mention the potential manslaughter of people inside the houses, being run over. But again the villainy is justified by claiming their victims are deserving: “These are dug dealer shacks. They make cocaine here.” Oh, well OK then I guess they should be run down in the street, the film implies.

Cuba chase scene Bad Boys 2
Sell bananas to the drug dealers? Your life is expendable

Of course I know fictional Cubans are fictional. But if my fictional protagonist murders a fictional kitten I am not rooting for the protagonist anymore. America was still rooting for the Bad Boys franchise, $138,608,444 gross My own Americorps group, minorities who’d all faced some form of oppression, thought nothing of it. Is it any surprise that this movie came out a year after the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center opened on Cuban soil (against Cuba’s wishes)?

Another harbinger of America’s growing moral bankruptcy, Guantanamo Bay was justified by separating out a group of people and saying that human rights don’t apply to them. That’s the argument under the surface of the movie too. That’s the assumption they slip by you. Human rights aren’t just for anyone. Human rights or for the good guys.  If you live in a drug dealer’s house, due process isn’t for you. If you make your living selling apples to an Ecstasy dealer it’s ok to obliterate your house. If you’re Iraqi, or not American, it’s OK to detain you indefinitely, and torture you. And that was 2003, now that same human-rights-are-only-for-some logic is being applied to asylum seekers. It’s the same logic justifying concentration camps.

The Fascist Gaze

In the opening of Bad Boys II Henry Rollin’s character (yes, that Henry Rollins) says, “these guys we’re going after, they got a lot of firepower and they hate the law.” This line is scripted to justify the wickedness of their adversaries. But how are the bad boys themselves different, and therefore justified? They are breaking the law and they have guns, but there is a gleeful, sadistic, corrupt joy in knowing that as police officers they will get away with it. In that sense, if cinema theory of the “male gaze” centers the audience through heterosexual desire, a movie like Bad Boys II  has a quasi-fascist gaze. It presumes the audience will take joy in law enforcement’s abuse of their powers.  OMG Godwin alert, right? I’m not saying that anyone involved with the Bad Boys franchise has or had any kind of nationalist message or prejudiced beliefs. (I’m a sucker for Will Smith, to be honest. Been a fan since “Parents Just Don’t Understand”.)

No, what I am saying is much worse than that.

I am saying that these are underlying problematic ideas that by 2002 had become so commonplace in America that even very cool people just accepted them as tacitly true. I am saying that we’d already become so ignorant of civil liberties that blatant injustice made a suitable comedy. No one’s intentions were sick, it was society that was sick all along. Bad Boys II is just a symptom.

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