Interior: Hotel conference room, London.

The year is 2004. Members of the press are lined up in a rows of seats, all facing action star Will Smith.

Smith is seated at a long table alongside Alex Proyas, the director of I, Robot, the movie the pair are in town to promote.

“I want the fans to know that I’m sorry, we let them down,” Smith says earnestly. He’s not talking about the excessive product placement in I, Robot, although he easily could be. He’s talking about Bad Boys II.

“There’s a really great 90-minute movie trying to get out of that three-hour mess. I hope that we can put it right sooner or later.”

Turns out he meant later. 16 years later, in fact. For Smith is once again running, shooting, fighting and quipping his way around Miami. As much as Detective Mike Lowrey is hunting for the bad guys, Smith is seeking a redemption of sorts. He wants to make up for the colossal mess that he, co-star Martin Lawrence and director Michael Bay subjected the world to all those years ago.

And against all odds, they’ve just about managed it.   

Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are back on the beat. At least, as far as we are concerned. The pair of Miami PD cops have been relentless busting criminals since we last saw them, and the latter is all too aware of time catching up – Marcus is now a grandfather, and Mike is still a player, refusing to grow up and settle down.

So when a new threat emerges, one with ties to Mike’s past that you almost certainly won’t see coming, the writing is on the wall for the ageing Bad Boys. Only, one of them just won’t see it.

Given how poorly received Bad Boys II was, and given the air of suspicion that should hang around any action sequel that arrives this long after the last instalment, it may take some time for Bad Boys For Life to win its audience over. Stick with it, cos it will do just that.

Lawrence in particular is funny. Really funny. Suspiciously funny. You might not accept it at first, but he’s genuinely laugh out loud funny. And just as astonishing, Smith is self-deprecating. He’s willing to be the butt of a joke or two. Even more impressive, the ‘look how cool we are’ sweeping camera shots that unnecessarily underpinned every other scene of Bad Boys II are almost mocked, subverted by a self-awareness the previous film simply didn’t have.

What the actual fuck is going on?

Michael Bay. That’s what. Or more importantly, the lack of Bay. Writers Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan have a far better sense of character and story than Bay, while directing duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah ably handle the action in a way that’s easy to follow, and doesn’t irritate.

Nor have they thrown away what makes a Bad Boys movie. They’ve just honed it down to the elements that work, while introducing a few new ones – most notably a support team of background characters (including an almost unrecognisable Vanessa Hudgens) who take on some of the action load.

Further, the script is smart. It contains something all writers who are not called Michael Bay strive for – character arcs. Lowrey and Burnett go on a journey. The characters around them go on their own journeys. Even the villains benefit from their own development.

Around the halfway stage you might be teetering. Is this a good film? Is it a shameless cash in? And then a bullet flies, you scream “oh shit!” and Bad Boys For Life ups the ante.

Back in that 2004 press conference, Smith is asked how long he intends to be an action star. Smith jumps up from his seat and runs around the perimeter of the room. “As long as I can do this, I will keep going. But when this happens…” he says, feigning a back injury and limping back to his seat, “That’s when I’ll know it’s over.”

He hasn’t hit that stage yet. His action performance is still convincing, yet still, Bad Boy For Life embraces the passage of time. Sure, it’s a bit too Lethal Weapon “I’m too old for this shit” at times, although that’s unavoidable in a cop buddy movie of this ilk. With Martin Lawrence on such good form while delivering that schtick, it’s entirely acceptable.

It would have been impressive if Bad Boys For Life proved to be the end of the series cycle, but Sony’s desire to franchise the hell out of any property they own won’t allow that. Indeed, there’s a real sense of Fast & Furious about the way the movie ends.

Still, if the next Bad Boys flicks can be as smart, funny and emotional as this one, maybe we won’t be happy to wait for 16 years to see it.

Bad Boys For Life is on general release from Friday 17th of January