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“Bad Boys 3’s Shocking Death Explained: Why It Had to Happen”

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Bad Boys for Life.

Bad Boys for Life is a hit at the box office, entertaining both audiences and critics. Reuniting the stars of the first two entries in the franchise, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, Bad Boys for Life features high-octane action sequences and witty repartee, but most shocking to fans of the franchise was the second-act death of one of the film’s most recognizable characters.

Bad Boys for Life follows two Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowery and Marcus Burnett who are pursued by a mysterious figure from their past. As the plot unfolds, Mike and Marcus soon learn that Mike is on a kill list, as Isabel Aretas (Kate del Castillo) and her son Armando Armas (Jacob Scipio) take out the law enforcement officers responsible for Isabel’s imprisonment one by one. The second to last person they target is none other than Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano), the most recognizable secondary character in the franchise. Howard, a returning character from the first two Bad Boys films, is Mike and Marcus’ acid-tongued boss, known for screaming admonishments at the detectives every time they get out of line.

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His alarming death – shot in the throat by Armando – provides one of Bad Boys for Life’s most compelling moments, but why did it have to happen? What does it mean for the film’s plot, and how does it contribute to the film thematically? And since Bad Boys 4 is already in the works, what does Captain Howard’s death mean for the franchise going forward?

From Isabel’s perspective, Captain Howard was one of the organizing forces that led to her incarceration. As Mike explains it, “Twenty-four years ago […] Captain Howard pulled me right out of the academy – nobody knew who I was. He sent me in undercover with the Aretas cartel.” After listing the victims of Isabel and Armando’s shooting spree, Mike concludes, “This is revenge.” As Mike reveals when explaining his backstory, he formed a relationship with Isabel during his time undercover. Though they had plans to run away together, when Mike realized that Isabel is a “stone-cold killer,” he chose to put the woman he loved behind bars.

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For Isabel, the one-by-one kill list is a way to slowly turn the screws on Mike, and as she goes down the list, each victim is closer to him personally than the last. Killing Captain Howard, Mike’s friend and mentor, ratchets up the pressure. While Mike may believe that Isabel made him who he is, Isabel likely believes that Captain Howard influenced Mike to turn her over to law enforcement and put her behind bars.

The animating theme of Bad Boy for Life is the corrupting power of revenge. Exacting revenge on Howard is Isabel’s way of demonstrating that Mike’s betrayal of her affected not only their relationship but everyone in Mike’s orbit, especially the man who pulled him away from her influence: Captain Howard.

Captain Howard also works as a foil to Marcus, whose character arc mirrors Howard’s. Before he dies, Howard recounts a Buddhist fable about a man riding an out of control horse. When asked where he is going, the rider says, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” Howard concludes that Mike needs to get control of his life before his own metaphorical horse runs him off a cliff. This is the same mantra that leads to Marcus’s short-lived retirement. Rather than riding the out of control horse that is police work, Marcus chooses the simple life of being a grandfather.

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When Howard dies, Marcus realizes that he cannot run from the duties of his job. Howard, the only other character who attempts to control his life and put his work in perspective, mirrors Marcus. Not only does the captain’s death function as the motivation Marcus needs to join Mike in the hunt for the killers, it also serves as a reminder that he can both attend family events – like the dinner he invited Mike to before his death and the kids’ game where he was killed – and be a functional police officer. Howard’s murder brings the Bad Boys back together for Bad Boys for Life‘s third act, and thematically contributes to Marcus’s arc.

Alongside the revenge plot is the formation of AMMO (Advanced Miami Metro Operations), an elite team of officers led by Rita (Paola Nunez) who has been promoted to lieutenant and has a romantic history with Mike. AMMO assists the Bad Boys during almost every action sequence including the final battle in Mexico, and the team provides young, tech-savvy talents who complement Mike and Marcus’s old school, shoot-‘em-up style. Much of the film’s generational conflicts and humor occur in the interactions between the Bad Boys and AMMO.

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During Bad Boys for Life’s denouement, when the AMMO team members celebrate their victory with Mike and Marcus, Rita reports that she has been promoted to captain after Howard’s death. This sets up the conflicts that will likely drive the sequel. Rita, connected to the younger cohort of detectives, will be in charge of the aging Bad Boys and now has the responsibility of barking orders at Mike and Marcus, just as Captain Howard used to. However, while Howard had the benefit of an older man’s authority over the younger Bad Boys, Rita must boss her older subordinates.

The theme of hanging onto their youth pervades Bad Boys for Life’s main characters, and with a captain younger than they are, that theme has new, fertile ground for exploration. If Bad Boys 3 is about life and times passing by the film’s heroes, what can Bad Boys 4 mine from a dynamic where the main characters are older than their captain?

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Captain Howard’s death was a shocking moment – he was gruesomely shot mid-sentence – but his death served a deeper purpose within the film’s narrative. Not only does his role in the initial operation 24 years ago make him one of Isabel’s most important targets, but his character also serves as a thematic connection to Bad Boys for Life’s most resonant themes. It may have been tragic to see Howard die, and the franchise lost a colorful actor in Joe Pantoliano, but with Rita taking his place, the next Bad Boys film can go in new and interesting directions.

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