Elderly inmate Willie Long (Obba Babatundé) attends the burial of two friends who recently perished in an infirmary fire in a Mississippi prison. He begins telling the two young inmates digging the graves his friends' life story.
Ray Gibson (Eddie Murphy) and Claude Banks (Martin Lawrence) are two New Yorkers in 1932 from two different worlds. Ray is a small-time hustler and petty thief, and Claude, an honest, yet often selfish minded man, has just been accepted for a job as a bank teller at First Federal of Manhattan. They are both at a club called Spanky's when Ray picks Claude as his mark to pick-pocket. They both end up in the bad graces of the club's owner Spanky (Rick James), and Ray arranges for himself and Claude to do some boot-legging to pay off their debt, heading down south in order to buy a carload of Mississippi 'hooch'. Before they can get back to New York, a man named Winston Hancock (Clarence Williams III), who swindled Ray in a card game, is murdered outside of a juke joint by the town's sheriff, Warren Pike (Ned Vaughn), who frames Ray and Claude for the murder. A short time later, they go to trial, are convicted, and sentenced to life.
Ray and Claude are sent to an infamous prison camp called 'Camp 8' (now Mississippi State Penitentiary) to perform hard labor. They spend the next 65 years trying to escape from prison, while making new friends - Biscuit (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), Jangle Leg (Bernie Mac), Radio (Guy Torry), Goldmouth (Michael Taliferro), Cookie (Anthony Anderson) and Pokerface (Barry Shabaka Henley) - and dodging guards Sergeant Dillard (Nick Cassavetes) and Hoppin' Bob (Brent Jennings) as their own friendship grows. Claude has his attorney cousin, Melvin, appeal against his conviction with his girlfriend Daisy's help, but it is denied, and shortly afterwards he finds out that Daisy has left him for Melvin. With any chance of being freed gone, Claude attempts to escape one night with Ray, getting as far as Tallahatchie before being captured and sentenced to a week in solitary confinement.
Around 1944, 12 years later, aged 37 years old, they meet a mute inmate nicknamed 'Can't-Get-Right' (Bokeem Woodbine), a talented baseball player. He catches the eye of a Negro League scout who states that he can get him out of prison if he will play baseball. Ray and Claude, seeing an opportunity to freedom, try to convince the scout to help let them out as well, as they relate to 'Can't-Get-Right' and get him to play best. During a dance social, Biscuit confides to Ray that he is going to be released; however, Biscuit is afraid to return to his family, being gay, and committs suicide by deliberately running across the "firing line", getting shot and killed by the guard. After 'Can't-Get-Right' is released to play for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Ray devises an escape but Claude refuses, upset with the fact that 'Can't-Get-Right' was released without them, leading to an argument that results in Ray and Claude going their separate ways.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1972, Ray and Claude are now elderly, aged 65 years old. All of Ray and Claude's friends have now died, except for Willie, now confined to a wheelchair. Dillard still runs the camp, who one day informs Ray and Claude that they will be transferred to live and work at Superintendent Dexter Wilkins' (Ned Beatty) mansion. Claude forms a friendship with Wilkins, and is entrusted to drive and pick up the new superintendent, Sheriff Warren Pike (R. Lee Ermey), the man who framed them forty years earlier. While on a pheasant hunt, Ray confronts Pike, where the sheriff admits to framing him and Claude with no remorse saying that "The state of Mississippi got forty years of cheap labor out of the deal." As Claude struggles to stop Ray from taking revenge, Pike attempts to kill them both, but he is shot and killed by Wilkins, realizing that Ray and Claude are indeed innocent, covering it up as a hunting accident. He intends to give them a pardon, but dies of a heart attack before he can do so.
In 1997 (present day), Ray and Claude are now very elderly, aged 90 years, living in the prison's infirmary. Claude tells Ray of yet another plan he has devised, but Ray has accepted his fate of dying in prison. That night, the infirmary catches fire, and they seemingly perish in the flames. Willie concludes the tale by outlining Claude’s plan: Ray and Claude would steal two bodies from the morgue, start the blaze, plant the bodies, hide in the fire trucks and depart with them in the morning. When the workers ask why the plan didn't work, Willie tells them that he "never said it didn't work", as the inmates begin to realize that the bodies they buried are not Ray and Claude, who have escaped back to New York, watching a New York Yankees baseball game. The film concludes by revealing the two are again on good terms, living together in Harlem.
Life was released on April 13, 1999 in North America. The film grossed $73,345,029 worldwide against an $80 million budget, making it a financial disappointment.
The film has received mixed to positive reviews and currently has a 50% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The site's critic consensus reads, "Entertaining if not over-the-top humor from a solid comic duo provides plenty of laughs."
Even though Life was set in Jackson, Mississippi!, Life was filmed in California; filming locations include Brentwood, CA, Locke, CA, Los Angeles, Downey, CA, and Sacramento, CA. Parts of the film were shot at a Rockwell Defense Plant in California.
A soundtrack containing hip hop and R&B music was released on March 16, 1999 on Rock Land/Interscope Records. It peaked at 10 on the Billboard 200 and 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and was certified platinum with over 1 million copies sold on June 18, 1999.Academy Award
nominated for Best Makeup (2000)
NAACP Image Award
nominated for Outstanding Motion Picture (2000)
BMI Film & TV Awards
(won) for Most Performed Song from a Film (2000)
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards
nominated with Eddie Murphy for Favorite Comedy Team (2000) for the movie
nominated for Favorite Song from a Movie (Fortunate)