Producers: Jerry Bruckheimer, Will Smith, Chad Oman and Doug Belgrad   Directors: Adil & Bilall (Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah)   Screenplay: Chris Bremner and Will Beall   Cast: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Paola Núñez, Jacob Scipio, Eric Dane, Ioan Gruffudd, Melanie Liburd, Tasha Smith, Rhea Seehorn, Quinn Hemphill, Dennis Greene, Tiffany Haddish, John Salley, DJ Khaled and Joe Pantoliano   Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Grade: C

At the beginning of this fourth installment in the buddy-cop franchise that began nearly thirty years ago, Miami Detective Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) gets married to pretty Christine (Melanie Liburd).  What are the odds that in the finale he’ll have to rescue her from the clutches of the movie’s dastardly villain?  If you guessed a hundred percent, you wouldn’t be far off.

That’s the level of inventiveness in the script by Chris Bremner and Will Beall, the former repeating from “Bad Boys for Life” (2020), the latter a first-timer with the series.  The injection of new blood into the writing hasn’t helped; the result is formula stuff, just more of the same, and the direction by Adil & Bilall, also returning from the previous picture, offers little new either, apart from working with cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert and editors Dan Lebental and Asaf Eisenberg (the former another returnee) to craft a few sequences in the form of first-person video shoot-‘em-ups (an effect that’s jarring rather than exciting).

And what of Mike’s partner Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence)?  He’s introduced driving with the anxious groom-to-be to the wedding, stopping off at a convenience store (where he indulges his insatiable love of junk food until a robber intervenes and Mike counter-intervenes) and then having a heart attack while dancing after delivering an embarrassing best-man speech.  Not to worry: he survives the near-death experience, visited in a dream by the guys’ late Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who was ambushed in the last movie and tells him it’s “not your time.”  So Marcus awakens in the hospital thinking himself invulnerable—a not terribly funny conceit he maintains through most of the movie, especially when it leads him to totter on a high ledge in a hospital gown that leaves his ample rump prominently displayed.

That’s not, moreover, the end of Captain Howard in the movie; in fact he’s the driver of the plot, in two ways.  First, he’s charged with having been corrupt and in league with a drug cartel—an accusation Captain Rita Secada (Paola Núñez), the head of the Miami police unit AMMO and an old fame of Mike’s, and her current BF, DA and mayoral candidate Lockwood (Ioan Gruffudd), sadly claim is buttressed by evidence of money laundering but the dead man’s daughter, US Marshal Judy Howard (Rhea Seehorn), angrily disputes.

Second, Howard has left behind one of those from-the-dead videos explaining that he’d been investigating official collusion with the cartel for years and has left evidence that his boys can use to complete his work.  Naturally they’re determined to do whatever is necessary to clear his name and expose the culprits.  That includes contacting Armando Aretas (Jacob Scipio), Mike’s Son He Never Knew He Had from the last movie, now in prison for killing Howard.  When they discover he alone can identify the mastermind behind the cartel and the frame (revealed early on as Eric Dane, though the background of his James McGrath character is withheld until much later), they arrange his release from prison; but their helicopter is attacked by the villains, and though they survive, they’re pursued by both the authorities as suspects on the lam and by assorted criminals trying to collect a bounty the cartel’s put on them.

The plot convolutions bring back others from the previous installment: AMMO members Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens) and Dorn (Alexander Ludwig), now a romantic item and among the best of the supporting cast (many, however, will bewail the absence of another AMMO member, Charles Melton’s gung-ho Rafe); Marcus’ solicitous wife Theresa (now played by Tasha Smith), and his son-in-law Reggie (Dennis Greene); burly gangster Manny the Butcher (DJ Khaled).  And there are newcomers: Fletcher (John Salley), a former crook turned club owner through whom Howard gives important information to the guys, Tabitha (Tiffany Haddish), a hard-ass hooker Mike unwisely goes to for help; and Callie (Quinn Hemphill), Howard’s granddaughter, who’s taken prisoner with Christine and is also in need of rescue.

Despite the complexity and the surfeit of characters, though, overall the plot feels like standard-issue cops-and-robbers stuff.  The movie tries to compensate for its predictability with a heavy quota of action set-pieces, the most elaborate being the final showdown at a defunct amusement park (a highlight, along with Fletcher’s club, of John Billington’s otherwise ordinary production design) where a full panoply of weapons, from automatic firearms to bomb-dropping drones, are deployed, as well as a giant albino alligator, which, when once introduced, has got to be fired in the tradition of Chekhov’s gun—in this case, to gobble up one of the villains whose identity is withheld until the last act but will come as no surprise to anyone.  But there are other similarly extravagant exercises in mayhem: a flamboyant shoot-out in Fletcher’s neon-drenched club, with lots of slow-mo and a cascade of multi-colored jelly beans; a chase involving a vehicle in flames; a fight aboard a fatally damaged helicopter.  All are smothered in Lorne Balfe’s typically blaring background music, except when it’s replaced by hip-hop needle drops, and none sets a particularly high standard except for energy; the conceptions themselves feel rote.

And these are juxtaposed with lots of hectic comic bits centered on Smith and Lawrence bickering.  One of the most extended—lamentably so—involves an encounter with a couple of shotgun-wielding, Reba McEntire-loving rednecks, but there are plenty of others in which the banter is equally uninspired.  (One hopes that it was improvised, because paying anybody to write it would constitute a crime as great as anything the villains do here.) The addition in the final reels of a device that comes out of left field—Mike begins to suffer from panic attacks—does nothing but allow the finale to be endlessly extended.  The conceit does have one benefit, though: it allows for Marcus to slap Mike repeatedly to get him back in the groove, a gag presumably meant as a jokey semi-apology for the Oscar misconduct that somehow became an international scandal.

To be sure, Smith and Lawrence work hard to prove that Lowrey and Burnett are still the bad boys audiences will remember from their earlier days.  But their endless squabbling feels forced, and they can’t help but seem rather tired old fellows when they (and their stunt doubles) go through the elaborate action rituals.  In fact, the most eye-catching derring-do comes not from them, but from the relative youngsters.  Scipio’s quiet resolve as he’s cutting down McGrath’s foot soldiers carries a genuine frisson (especially since it’s not CGI-heavy), as is the best scene in the movie, in which Greene’s Reggie coolly puts away a dozen or so heavily-armed intruders in the Burnett house as Mike and Marcus look on incredulously via a camera hookup. 

It’s no wonder that in the end even Marshal Howard relents about sending Armando back to prison despite his having killed her father (since he’s also saved her daughter), or that Mike and Marcus defer to Reggie in the jokey last scene.  In fact, if “Bad Boys” continues, one shouldn’t be surprised if Scipio and Greene take center stage as a new odd couple, with Smith and Lawrence relegated to supporting status.

For now one can say that “Ride or Die” is an improvement on “For Life,” but only marginally by comparison to a particularly awful predecessor.  If it scores with audiences, nostalgia will be the sole reason.