6 Underground’s opening sequence is as pure – if that’s remotely an appropriate word, given the content – and unexpurgated a slice of Bayhem as you ever did see, a visual tour de force of colours, sound, insane stunts, pulverised pedestrians and exploding entrails up there with anything in Bad Boys II. One can go back and forth on whether or not that’s a good or bad thing – at his best, which is increasingly rarely, I think Michael Bay’s a purveyor of “big” cinema par excellence – but the director’s undeniably in his element. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie is pretty unpersuasive.
Which is largely the case for Bay’s oeuvre. He is not the connoisseur of a well-honed screenplay. The best he’s given us came early on, with The Rock, while the more recent Pain & Gain found him bludgeoning, battering and beating any satirical elements to death via his typically hyperbolic treatment of the material. Because Bay wouldn’t be Bay if he engaged in moderation or subtlety. He spent a decade in the Transformers-verse, making five movies about a toy range beating the shit out of each other you can barely tell apart (the robots and the movies), and in Bad Boys II wore extreme bad taste a badge of honour.
Also to be found in Bay’s resumé are a couple of paeans to brave heroes in the armed services, notably the risible Pearl Harbour and more recently 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. The latter was an impressively executed but predictably politically vacuous exercise in its depiction of private military contractors saving the asses of CIA guys operating in Libya to unspecified ends. Maybe Bay’s yen to make 6 Underground came from a similar philosophical place. Scripted by Paul Wenick and Rhett Reese – the Zombielands, the Deadpools, Life; actually nothing with their name on it hitherto suggests this would be quite so… so-so – it essentially posits a private sector CIA, unhindered by pesky government red tape, by way of irreverent quips and superhero secret identities (but no spandex).
Ryan Reynold’s billionaire magnet-guy – neodymium micro-magnets, to be precise – One has assembled the titular team to pull off jobs no one else can. Read: coups in Middle Eastern countries to depose dictators he unilaterally decides are no good (“You could take out some truly evil people. Truly world-class evil motherfuckers” he tells prospective Seven, Corey Hawkins of 24: Legacy). One made his fortune selling patents (including to the CIA) and decided he wanted to use his loot to do good: “Governments don’t really help people in need” he explains insightfully.
Later, One refutes the idea that the President sent them to their chosen country (“He can’t even spell Turgistan” which may be partly due to it being fictional, at least in the current era). The evil dictator they plan on taking down has been instigating chemical attacks on his people and observes in passing, as would any self-aware Middle Eastern dictator, “The US? They made me. Russia? They armed me”. So Turgistan is evidently intended as a grab bag of Libya and Syria, particularly the former, with the twisted justice One reserves for Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz); he refrains from killing him outright in order to drop him obligingly from a helicopter, so he can be torn apart by his fellow countrymen. Just the kind of compassionate guy you want on your side.
Bay has always refrained from explicitly stating his political preferences, but you’d be hard-pressed to see this simplistic story of evil dictators and democracy-enforcing vigilantes as other than shot through with right-wing idealism. The problem with all this, besides morally and ethically that is, is that 6 Underground takes a dramatic nosedive whenever we aren’t involved in the team pulling off daring operations. And since these operations constitute three extended action sequences over the span of a two-hour-plus movie, there’s a lot of dead weight here. Dead weight characterised by that evil Middle Eastern dictator, of the type Hollywood has been churning out for forty years now (with a moderate brother played by Patman Maadi to take his place).
The other problem is that the team aren’t especially appealing. Mission: Impossible is all about Tom Cruise doing stunts, so the supporting cast are lucky to get a look in. Fast & Furious is all about family. “We’re not family” instructs One at one point, meaning that events will inevitably prove him wrong (mostly swayed by Seven’s ex-Delta Force “leave no one behind” mantra).
The opening sequence effectively and often hilariously introduces the line-up, including Mélanie Laurent’s ex-CIA agent Two, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s hit man Three (not remotely funny, as Bay clearly thinks he is), Ben Hardy’s parkour guy robber Four, Adrian Arjona’s doctor Five and Dave Franco’s doomed driver Six (Franco is usually less irritating than his brother by dint of getting less screen time, and mercifully, he’s done and dusted by the end of this chase). Fast-talking Reynolds aside, who doesn’t so much have a remotely plausible character as he’s played by fast-talking Reynolds, the only impressions made come via strained and unconvincing interplay; Two and Three embark on an unromantic Michael Bay romance, while Seven’s integrity rubs off on One when he saves Four.
But all that aside: the action. The opening Italy-set chase is exhilarating and outrageous, piling up the innocent bystander carnage (“You hit one more person, and I’m walking!” shouts Five), and replete with spurting bullet wounds, blonde Batman Four hanging about on rooftops waiting for the judicious moment to intervene in a car chase by sending scaffolding poles intrusively through windscreens and chest cavities, a dangling eyeball (“Don’t you squash it!”), a slow-motion rocket grenade brushing a bad guy’s nose before exploding, evidence that Bay thinks he’s still in the ’90s (Spice Girls used as an inappropriate music choice gag) and best of all “Nooooo the puppies!” as Six attempts to avoid running over a couple of pooches. All this, interjected with freeze frames, title cards and Reynolds’ voice over, and Bojan Bazelli’s gorgeous cinematography, makes for a dizzying mix.
Then, however, it’s another hour of twiddling one’s thumbs until Bay mounts the team’s attack on a rooftop pad, complete with breached swimming pool flooding carnage. Sure, there are flashbacks detailing how the team was formed and individual members’ backgrounds, but since the members aren’t very vital – Laurent probably comes off best – no amount of flash from the director can persuade us otherwise. The near-finale finds One using his skills to magnetise an entire yacht along with anyone in the vicinity. It’s big, bold and bug-nuts, and again, Bay’s like a pig in shit showing off just how far he’s willing to go, with a kitchen full of knives having a devastating effect and a hand grenade jammed in a bad guy’s mouth leaving nothing above the shoulders.
So 6 Underground represents another example of Netflix exerting absolutely zero quality control. A positive boon for the directors they’re offering bottomless bags of cash, not so promising for their growing library. This cost $150m, and I can imagine it would have bombed, had it been a studio cinema release (nevertheless, Bay’s visuals are tailored for a BIG screen). As it is, it’s sure to do well, viewers-wise, but it’s evidence that Bay really needs material tailored to performers who can keep their heads above water – in the past Will Smith, Nic Cage maybe – while he’s set on destroying everything around them. Reynolds is left operating in a vacuum here, and it goes down as yet another of his iffy lead role choices.