Will Smith Gets Slapped in ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ — and Here’s Why It May Save His Career

SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses plot points from “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” which hits U.S. theaters on June 7.

At the climax of “Bad Boys: Ride or Die” — the fourth installment of the buddy cop blockbuster action-comedy franchise starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence — something surprising happens.

More from Variety

The franchise’s heroes (and the titular “Bad Boys”), Miami narcotics detectives Mike Lowery (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence), have spent most of the movie on the run. They begin the action focused on clearing the name of their dearly departed Capt. Howard (Joe Pantoliano), who has been accused of aiding and abetting the cartels, then get framed themselves. It’s all come down to this — one final showdown with the turncoat cops and drug lords that ordered the hit on Howard in the previous film, 2020’s “Bad Boys for Life.”

There’s just one problem: Mike’s having a panic attack, a persistent problem that’s developed during the course of the movie, as he frets over losing those closest to him.

So, Marcus slaps him. Not once, but repeatedly — amping his partner up to get back to his “bad boy” self so they can shoot their way out of this jam and restore their good names.

It’s a knowing, yet inverted, wink to “The Slap,” the instantly infamous incident where Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage at the 2022 Oscars (as if you forgot). And playing the moment for laughs is certainly a big swing — pun intended. The question is whether or not it was the right move — or Smith’s only option of addressing the incident (once and, perhaps, for all) and regaining the success he once had?

When Smith took the microphone to introduce the film before a packed house at the TCL Chinese Theatre on May 30, that question certainly seemed to be on his mind — at least subliminally.

The screening was running 45 minutes behind, thanks to all the red carpet fanfare happening outside on Hollywood Blvd. “We’re not going to take up a lot of time because we late, and that’s why Black movies struggle,” Smith joked as the audience laughed. (A premiere starting 30 minutes behind schedule is pretty standard.)

In truth, there wasn’t much out of the ordinary about the event — Smith, Martin Lawrence, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah arrived atop a double-decker bus, with the Fresh Prince rapping for the fans waiting on the boulevard below. In 2020, for “Bad Boys for Life,” they’d shut down the same street and Smith and Lawrence arrived in a Porsche for a quick live-streamed concert.

Back then, though, Smith had one of the most sterling reputations in Hollywood. (His Q Score, a reputation metric that surveys positive and negative sentiment about politicians, performers, public figures and brands, consistently ranked him among the country’s top five or 10 positively rated actors.) Now, he has much more riding on this moment and this movie. So, Smith took a moment to shout out his crew: namely Lawrence (aka “Marty Mar”), his “Bad Boys” partner of 30 years, who is “still as handsome and almond-y as he always was” and the team at Sony, who backed the movie.

“They were truly, truly ride or die with us,” he said, calling out Sony CEO Tony Vinciquerra and Sony Pictures Entertainment chairperson Tom Rothman in particular. “You don’t hear actors say this a lot of time about heads of studios, but Tom Rothman is a real, live, ride or die. Tom Rothman was messing with me when nobody was messing with me. That is my dude.”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MAY 30: Executive producer Martin Lawrence (L) and producer Will Smith attend the Los Angeles Premiere of Columbia Pictures' "Bad Boys: Ride Or Die" at the TCL Chinese Theater on May 30, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith at the TCL Chinese Theatre for the Los Angeles Premiere of “Bad Boys: Ride Or Die.”

In that moment, Smith said the quiet part out loud. There was a time between January 2020 (when “Bad Boys 4” launched early development, as the third film began its run toward a $426.5 million worldwide gross) and January 2023 (when the movie officially began pre-production) when he wasn’t sure if all of this was going to happen.

To quantify just how much Smith’s reputation was tarnished, in August 2022, Variety reported that his positive Q Score plummeted from a stellar 39 to 24, which Henry Schafer, the company’s executive VP characterized as “a very significant and precipitous decline.” That number has sunk further to a 19, as of Q Score’s last count in early 2024. (The company releases its surveys in January and July of each year.)

But no one has actually said it plainly during this press tour. Heck, Smith didn’t even say it then. In fact, he quickly moved on and wrapped things up by reminiscing about how original “Bad Boys” director Michael Bay (who was in the audience and makes another cameo in the movie) got him and Lawrence in line on the set of the first installment.

“Everything in the first three leads up to this,” Smith said, just before the lights went down in the theater and bad boy detectives’ latest exploits began to play out on the big screen. But with “The Slap” now at the front of mind, a question lingered: how might that moment play into this movie? Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman walked into a screening days later with a similar thought on his mind.

“The scene acts as a kind of pop exorcism,” Gleiberman writes in his review. “It’s ‘punishing’ Smith, making cruel fun of his transgression, and just maybe, in the process, allowing him to crawl out from under the image of it.”

The moment worked for the audiences in both screenings, who laughed knowingly at the meta scene. Other critics were less impressed. The Daily Beast characterized the joke as “tasteless,” writing that the “wink-wink gag proves to be a self-aggrandizing inversion of Smith’s Academy Award meltdown” in its function as part of the star’s need for image rehab.

Smith has apologized for assaulting Rock — first in a written statement the day after the Oscars, then in a direct-to-camera video months later — and faced the professional consequences, including resigning from the Academy and being banned from Oscar-related events for the next decade. For his part, Rock delivered a stinging rebuke of Smith via his 2023 Netflix special “Selective Outrage.”

But “Bad Boys 4” is Smith’s first major test of public perception and his status as king of the blockbuster. “Emancipation,” a harrowing slave saga that debuted post-slap in 2022, was for Apple, so the box office didn’t matter as much as the film’s awards prospects. It struck out there, however. Smith and the film were ignored by the Oscars, though he did won the NAACP Image Award for best actor.

A couple days before the L.A. premiere, a post went viral on X (formerly known as Twitter) that listed Smith’s “unreal” box office stats, highlighting the $141 million haul for the original “Bad Boys” in 1995 through the $1.5 billion box office for 2019’s “Aladdin.” The post also notes that Smith is the only actor to have eight consecutive films gross over $100 million at the domestic box office — which is true, but leaves out the equally impressive fact that he also has eight consecutive No. 1 openers.

Judging by the responses to that post, there are plenty of people who want to experience “Big Willie Weekend” again — to see Smith continue that string of summer blockbuster hits — but does that desire mean audiences will spend an hour and 55 minutes in a movie theater?

The industry debate over whether Smith and “Ride or Die” can kickstart the summer’s sluggish box office is valid. The movie is tracking to open to between $30 million and $50 million from 3,850 theaters this weekend. “As that cavernous range suggests, estimates vary greatly depending on whom you ask,” Variety’s Rebecca Rubin explains in her box office preview. “Sony has offered the soft $30 million figure, while rivals and independent tracking services believe the $45 million to $50 million range is more likely.”

For context, “Bad Boys for Life” opened to $62 million in its debut, overperforming expectations on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of 2020 (due in part to the COVID pandemic shuttering theaters shortly after its release).

In effort to secure that big number, Smith has been pounding the pavement and returning to the fan-fueled playbook that made him a global star in the first place. But, in what has become the norm for many recent big-budget movies, social media influencers were heavily utilized to promote the film via invitations to special screenings and photo ops.

That’s not to say that Smith avoided journalists; he’s just done interviews in the friendliest of friendly circumstances. He and Lawrence did paired interviews with dozens of outlets, including Variety, on the red carpet at events like the L.A. premiere, which marked the halfway point on their world tour. The “Bad Boys” have traveled to Dubai, Riyadh (the first red carpet premiere for a Hollywood studio film in Saudi Arabia), Madrid, Berlin, Mexico City and New York.

“It’s not just here,” Smith told Variety’s Marc Malkin about the fans who’ve continued to support him. “It’s all over the world. Every time we step out together, it’s nothing but love. I think the fans are ride or die also.”

There was a press junket too — where journalists weren’t told outright not to ask about the Oscars incident, but were generally advised against bringing up old stories and urged to keep their questions to the movie.

Well, since Lawrence’s Marcus slaps Smith’s Mike in the movie … doesn’t that count?

So, here’s a few burning questions: Since this movie borrows from real life, (Marcus has a perspective-shifting heart attack, which was inspired by screenwriter Will Beall’s 2019 cardiac arrest) has Smith suffered from similar panic attacks since entering this uber-stressful phase of his career where everything seemed like it was on the line? Why was this the way that he wanted to address “The Slap”? Was there any hesitation in playing the scene for laughs? (Bearing in mind the fact Rock did the same thing in his Netflix special, though he was the victim, not the aggressor). And now that it has been “addressed,” does he think people will move on? Or will he eventually discuss it in depth?

The “Bad Boys” scene is the first time Smith is acknowledging the slap since his tearful “Daily Show” interview with Trevor Noah in Nov. 2022, when he stepped back into the spotlight to promote “Emancipation.” But, in the hours of interviews he has done since — from Tuesday night’s appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to Fandango’s “The Big Ticket” to Hot 97’s “Ebro in the Morning” or “Hot Ones” — questions about why he decided to acknowledge that moment in this way have yet to be answered.

Maybe he’ll address the fallout in the new music he’s been in the studio working on, the thematic premise of which is “dance in your darkest moments.”

“The last couple years of my life have been spiritually, emotionally transformative,” Smith told Access Hollywood at the L.A. premiere. “So I have more to say than I’ve ever had to say in my life and music was the only place where I could truly express what I had to say.”

But now that it’s been addressed on film — the medium through which so much of Smith’s legacy was solidified — maybe that’s as good as it’s going to get.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.