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When ‘Bad Boys’ Began, Martin Lawrence Was the Top Dog

Bad Boys: Ride or Die” hits theaters this weekend, giving fans one more installment in the ongoing adventures of wisecracking Miami detectives Marcus and Mike. Like a lot of franchises, these movies increasingly peddle nostalgia, playing on audiences’ fond memories of the previous chapters. But at a certain point, you have to marvel that there’s still a large enough fan base to support these movies long after the original came out. After all, the first “Bad Boys” debuted back in April of 1995. The world was so different back then. Bill Clinton was president. The internet was hardly a thing. And Martin Lawrence was a bigger star than Will Smith.

Go back and watch “Bad Boys” now; beyond being stunned at how young Lawrence and Smith look, you may also be surprised to discover that Lawrence gets top billing. Eight years later when “Bad Boys II” strutted onto the screen, those two names were switched in the credits. But in ‘95, Smith wasn’t yet Will Smith Mega-Superstar. “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” were still on the horizon—he hadn’t yet ascended to his title of King of the Summer Blockbuster. You know everything that happened to him after that. But Lawrence’s pre- and post-“Bad Boys” career is less discussed. Thirty years ago, he wasn’t viewed as Smith’s onscreen sidekick.

In the mid-1990s, both men were primarily known for their hit sitcoms—Lawrence for “Martin” and Smith for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”—although, of course, they’d establish themselves beyond those shows as well. Lawrence was a major stand-up comic—his live album “Talkin’ Shit’ dropped in 1993, with his concert film “You So Crazy” coming out the following year—and he’d been in era-defining films like “Do the Right Thing,” “House Party” and “Boomerang.” Before “Martin,” he’d starred in the late-1980s sitcom “What’s Happening Now!!,” and in the early ‘90s, he served as a host on “Def Comedy Jam.”  

But for all his success—he was being hailed as the next Eddie Murphy—he hadn’t yet become a bona fide movie star. He’d been the lead of one film—1991’s “Talkin’ Dirty After Dark,” written and directed by “Martin” co-creator Topper Carew—in which he played a stand-up comic, but before “Bad Boys,” he was looking for a big-screen vehicle. As Lawrence told Vibe in the spring of 1995, he wanted a script with a “buddy-buddy feel to it, but something that was real, that would be good for my audience and work for other audiences as well.” Plus, he was looking to rebound from the bad press that came his way after hosting “Saturday Night Live” in February of 1994. In his monologue, he riffed on Lorena Bobbitt and cracked crude jokes about what he perceived as women’s hygiene issues: “I’m watching douche commercials on television, and I’m wondering if some of you are reading the instructions,” he said. “I don’t think so. Y’know, ‘cause I’m getting with some of the ladies, smelling odors, going, ‘Wait a minute, girl, smell this! This you! Smell yourself, girl.’”

The backlash to his improvised routine was swift. Jay Leno canceled Lawrence’s subsequent “Tonight Show” appearance, and the monologue was later released in an edited version on YouTube. But Lawrence, who was known for his raunchy routines, was unapologetic. “If I don’t know anything else, I know what it takes to make a person laugh,” he told the Los Angeles Times soon after. “People have to have the right to laugh, or else you’re going to have a lot more of us going crazy. If you can get past the language and have fun with what I’m talking about, I’m going to help keep you mentally healthy.” As far as he was concerned, the “SNL” brouhaha was just excellent publicity. “My fans know me, and they’re not surprised by anything I say,” he insisted. “And right now, a lot more people are asking, ‘Who is Martin Lawrence?’”

The question didn’t always yield encouraging answers, however, as Lawrence began to develop a reputation for being a difficult, testy individual. During “Martin’s” run, Lawrence fired Carew (also his manager) as part of his desire to control the show’s direction. “I have more say, so if I don’t like something, we won’t do it,” he told Vibe about Carew’s ouster. “If I do like something, we do.”

To be fair, women and artists of color are often labeled “difficult” in a derogatory fashion—whereas famous hardheaded white creative types like, say, Taylor Sheridan are celebrated for sticking to their guns. Nonetheless, as Lawrence and Smith were heading into “Bad Boys,” the former dealt with controversy while the latter enjoyed a chummy rapport with the press. Smith had been the family-friendly rapper who gave us breezy hits like “Summertime,” and while “Fresh Prince” was hardly groundbreaking, it cemented his lovable onscreen persona, demonstrating he wasn’t “just” a musician. Plus, he’d demonstrated his dramatic chops with 1993’s Oscar-nominated “Six Degrees of Separation.” (Pity he was so weird at the time about his character’s same-sex kiss.) Smith’s public demeanor was friendly and big-hearted, while Lawrence was more guarded—a contrast made apparent in that Vibe profile of the two actors. (Writer Scott Poulson-Bryant clearly had a better time talking to the open Smith than the defensive Lawrence.) Still, Lawrence felt no rivalry with his co-star—if anything, he was excited about the prospect of them being a comedy duo. 

“You never see two brothers from different networks getting together to do something like this,” Lawrence told Poulson-Bryant. “But we had a lot of fun. We worked hard together. Since both of us have comic timing on the sitcoms, we knew it was just a matter of getting together and finding out how we complemented each other.”

As many know, the script was originally intended for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz—that’s how long ago the original “Bad Boys” was—but eventually became the coming-out party for Lawrence and Smith, not to mention first-time feature filmmaker Michael Bay. And that exuberance is “Bad Boys’” best quality—the sense that the leads and their director are all jazzed about being allowed to get away with everything they do in that film. When Lawrence was preparing to release “You So Crazy,” he had to fight with the ratings board, which slapped the concert film with an NC-17 because of the language, and you can feel his glee at being filthy in a big action movie. 

But while both actors deliver plenty of one-liners, what’s fascinating about “Bad Boys” is how it positions Lawrence’s Marcus as the relatively stable, settled member of this partnership—Smith’s Mike is the inveterate ladies’ man. At the same time, Marcus is married with kids, his wild days long behind him. But, of course, that’s when “Bad Boys’” plot kicks in, forcing Marcus to pretend to be Mike to get a witness to a murder (Téa Leoni) to testify. Suddenly, the married guy has to play-act as the cocky lothario, a role Marcus is far too removed from in real life to recreate. Lawrence is funny in the role, but even back in 1995, it was apparent that Smith had the greater charisma and a more bulletproof swagger. Lawrence brought his all, while Smith made it all seem effortless. The Fresh Prince was destined for bigger things.

Buoyed by the success of “Bad Boys,” a relatively low-budget movie by Bay’s standards that hit big, Lawrence kept his eye trained on big-screen roles. He directed, co-wrote, and starred in the comedy-thriller “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” teamed up with Eddie Murphy for “Life” and hit paydirt with 1999’s “Blue Streak” and 2000’s “Big Momma’s House,” two broad, crowd-pleasing comedies. But at the same time, he was worrying those around him. In 1997, Hollywood journalist Sharon Waxman wrote in The Washington Post that there were two Lawrences: “One is a wiry, raunch-minded, fast-talking, off-kilter smartass, a little guy with a big mouth and a keen eye for a weak spot. A guy who nonetheless wouldn’t hurt a fly, say those who know him. The other is a ranting, incoherent menace. A gun-wielding madman. A basket case.” His on-set outbursts became public knowledge. In 1996, he ran into traffic, a gun in his pocket, and started cursing and yelling, “Fight the establishment!” before being taken away by police to a hospital for monitoring. (His publicist blamed the meltdown on “a case of complete exhaustion and dehydration.”) Then, three years later, he fell into a coma because of severe heat exhaustion while exercising, waking three days later.

But the most alarming of all the incidents was his “Martin” costar, Tisha Campbell, in 1997 filing a lawsuit against Lawrence, accusing him of sexual harassment. “The hostile working conditions on the show became unduly aggravated due to Lawrence’s increased volatility, erratic and violent conduct and his apparent obsession with Campbell, in which he focused his lust, anger, and violent tendencies on her,” the lawsuit stated. The matter was eventually settled, and Campbell returned to the show, later appearing as part of a 2022 cast reunion. (Campbell wouldn’t talk about the settled lawsuit while promoting the reunion, though, simply saying, “All we’re doing is uplifting one another and supporting one another at this point.”)

When Lawrence and Smith reunited for “Bad Boys II” in 2003, Lawrence had had his share of hits and bombs, but Smith was now an Oscar-nominated actor who was integral to the “Men in Black” franchise. Yes, he’d also been part of the 1999 dud “Wild Wild West,” but even that movie made more money than any of Lawrence’s by that point. It’s fair to say that between “Bad Boys” and “Bad Boys II,” Smith and Bay had become major names, and Lawrence wasn’t at that same level. After “Bad Boys II,” Lawrence kept his commercial momentum going thanks to “Big Momma’s House 2” and “Wild Hogs,” but by 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life,” another sizable smash, his big-screen appearances were few and far between. We had now gotten used to seeing Smith in comedies, action flicks and Oscar-worthy dramas, but Lawrence was like an old friend we hadn’t checked in with for a while. It was nice to see him again, even if not much has changed. 

With “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” nearly upon us, most of the attention will be on Will Smith’s continued attempts to revive his career in the aftermath of the Slap. By comparison, Lawrence is almost an afterthought—Big Willie’s second banana. Sadly, the comic has generated headlines this week, but it’s because fans are worrying about his erratic behavior and wondering about his health. Hopefully, Lawrence is completely fine, and to be sure, the new movie—despite how familiar and tired it feels—is nonetheless a reminder of how enjoyable he and Smith are together on screen. In his film career, Lawrence has often played the wild card, the loose cannon, the guy with the short fuse. But this franchise has utilized that quality better than any of his other movies.

Back in 1995, Lawrence talked to Vibe about trying to become a more mature person. (He turned 30 shortly after the first film’s release.) But he wasn’t convinced maturity was all it was cracked up to be. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully grown-up, ‘cause I ain’t trying to lose the kiddish things in me, ‘cause that’s what I love,” he said just as “Bad Boys” was about to change his life. “I love to bug out and be spontaneous and talk some shit. I changed for the better, and I’m steady trying to get better at what I do. But by the same token, I talk shit. We all do.” 

In “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” he’s still talking shit, his character Marcus never fully grown up. Smith became the bigger star, but all these years later, he and Lawrence still feel so right together—no matter whose name shows up first on screen. 

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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