‘6 Underground’: Inside Michael Bay’s Most Batsh*t-Insane Movie Yet
The Ryan Reynolds-starring action bonanza is a gonzo symphony of bods, blasts and bullets the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Michael Bay makes mega-movies that want to shock, overwhelm, and bludgeon you into delirious—and shattered—submission. Consequently, the fact that the bigger-is-always-better director has moved to Netflix for his latest, 6 Underground, seems wrong on an elemental level. You’re supposed to feel crushed under the weight of all his cacophonous, senses-searing sound and fury, exhausted and enraged and excited by the sheer overkill of his every cinematic gesture. On a couch in front of a TV, or gazing down at a puny device in the palm of your hand, the effect just isn’t the same.
That will undoubtedly be true of 6 Underground, which pummels audiences in a bombastic fashion that’s tailor-made for the big-screen—which is how I saw it days before its Dec. 13 streaming-service debut, but few else will, since no theatrical release is planned. All the Bay-hem trademarks are on full display in this testament to uninhibited excess, indebted equally to The A-Team, Mission: Impossible, James Bond, superhero tentpoles and numerous Bay predecessors. A crass cross between a military recruitment video and a car commercial that’s been coated in a sheen of high-gloss strip-club sleaze, it refutes the idea that less is ever more. Piling on so much insanity that it plays like a compendium of every Bay-ism in the book, all of it executed with machine-like efficiency and rock-‘em, sock-‘em grotesqueness, the film operates as an orgy of female objectification, firearm fetishism, cultural stereotyping, pop-culture references and explosions, explosions, EXPLOSIONS that’s awe-inspiring in its inappropriate, insensitive immoderation.
6 Underground is about a group of badass “ghosts” who’ve faked their own deaths in order to work as a vigilante squad led by One (Ryan Reynolds)—each member is known only by their number—and the film’s battering-ram initial scene acquaints us with its protagonists via a race through the streets of Florence that’s bursting at the seams with over-the-top madness. In a DayGlo-green car piloted by Six (Dave Franco), One cracks wise while doctor Five (Adria Arjona) performs surgery in the backseat on CIA agent Two (Mélanie Laurent), and the foursome attempt to rendezvous with hitman Three (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and “skywalker” Four (Ben Hardy)—the latter of whom is a master at death-defying parkour. Cars somersault, bodies are mangled, innumerable rounds are fired, jokes are made about the size of Michelangelo’s David’s penis, and nuns flip off our heroes as they barrel through wedding receptions and museums, leaving destruction (and fleeing dogs and pigeons) in their wake. Bay shoots this with maximum ADD energy, his camera swinging, soaring, rotating and assuming countless POVs, be it that of Four leaping across rooftops (thanks, GoPro!), the tire of a speeding vehicle, or the inside-out view from Two’s gunshot wound after the bullet is finally removed.
It’s hard not to feel wiped out at the end of this 20-minute opening salvo, which screeches and crashes with sonic-boom force (augmented by Lorne Balfe’s rock-electronica-noise score), and which additionally features flashbacks, freeze-frame text cards, slow-motion, screaming, and momentary pauses to gawk at beautiful women. It’s also difficult not to suspect that 6 Underground has fired its best shot a bit too early. That impression is amplified by the subsequent hour of more proper character introductions—guided by Reynolds’ narration, and partly focused on the team’s newest conscript, sniper Seven (Corey Hawkins)—which strains to match the material’s initial mania. It doesn’t help that Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s script is short on the sharp wink-wink sarcasm that marked their two Deadpool efforts (or the self-referential slyness of Bay’s 2013 Pain & Gain). Their writing is a mess of jumbled backstories, needlessly complex twists and turns, and mediocre macho one-liners for everyone involved, women included, who are asked to pull double-duty slaughtering bad guys and looking hot enough to warrant Bay’s drooling pans along their scantily-clad bodies.
As it turns out, One is a Bruce Wayne-ish billionaire who’s assembled this unit to carry out the dirty work the world needs done, but which is stymied by governments, laws and all those other pesky bureaucratic barriers to justice. He’s been freed by his (phony) demise, liberated to achieve the sort of noble ends he only dreamed of realizing in his former life as a wildly successful tech magnate. With endless resources at his disposal, his main target is a dictator named Rovach (Lior Raz) who uses sarin gas on his own people (in the make-believe country of Turgistan) and then broadcasts it to the world in order to intimidate his enemies. He’s a stock villain that One wants to take down, replacing him with his more democratically inclined brother (Payman Maadi). That mission involves the employment of disguises and cutting-edge military hardware on which Bay lavishes his usual lusty attention, and the director further decorates his frame with current-event tidbits about immigration and refugees that strain to make the saga resonate as of-the-moment.
Sunset silhouette shots, pornographic violence and soft-core sex are also standard parts of the Bay mix, chopped up into spasms of light and color by an editorial structure (courtesy of William Goldenberg, Roger Barton and Calvin Wimmer) that often seems determined to induce a seizure. Bay amplifies every single element of the film to such ridiculous degrees that, during the team’s extraction of Maadi’s do-gooder from a Hong Kong penthouse, the staging turns so incoherent, and the striking images so disconnected from each other, that 6 Underground becomes beautifully, absurdly abstract—a visual and aural distillation of the director’s fixation on rebellious commandos fulfilling lethal duties in and around ultramodern environs filled with motorcycles, yachts and helicopters, and populated by endless streams of henchmen and call girls.
6 Underground doesn’t boast real performances so much as a series of striking poses struck by beautiful people in dangerous situations, and its innumerable cinematic shout-outs (including to Star Wars, The Sixth Sense, Goodfellas and a recurring we’re-not-a-family bit aimed at The Fast and the Furious) are about as subtle as its rah-rah celebration of DIY manliness, armament power, and wealth as a force for good. It’s a movie that wants to be The Most Movie, all dudebro swagger, juvenile titillation, product placement (Red Bull! Captain Morgan Rum! Chopard watches!) and gee-whiz aesthetic showmanship, to the point that its characters even use the iconic THX movie-theater roar as a literal weapon. The thrill one derives from its assaultive action comes mostly from the feeling—akin to Three’s incessant punching of a high-value target—of being gratuitously beaten to a pulp while the world crashes and burns right before your bloodied eyes; or, as in the bonkers finale, of being hurled about as if by ferocious magnets. For better and worse, in a multiplex or on your television or tablet, it delivers pleasure through pain.