'6 Underground,' Michael Bay and the Edge of Good and Bad

6 Underground - Ryan Reynolds- Publicity Still 2- H 2019
Courtesy Netflix
The Netflix film may be the perfect Venn diagram of the director’s cinematic ambition, with awful and great overlapping within a territory of pure Bay-hem.

[This story contains spoilers for 6 Underground.]

The first 10 minutes gave me a headache. Before the title even hits the screen we get a flashback, product placement for Red Bull and a plane crash. What follows the title within those opening 10 minutes is a high-speed car chase through Florence, Italy. But this isn’t just any car chase. It’s one that employs no less than half a dozen needle drops, trucks flipping over for reasons I still can’t determine, sparks flying out of things that shouldn’t spark, mafia gunmen, parkour, a more recent flashback, go-pro sequences, the statue of David accompanied by a small dick joke, Ryan Reynolds trying to hold onto a loose eyeball that serves as some kind of security key and Dave Franco getting impaled through the neck by a freight loader. This is Michael Bay’s 6 Underground. This is Bay-hem on a scale undreamt of.

There’s a lot to be said about Bay’s place within cinema (can we still call it that?), and much has been said. The sheer excess of his filmmaking style has left him with a sizeable fan base, and just as many critical detractors. The filmmaker who broke out of directing music videos with his first feature film, Bad Boys (1995), which launched Will Smith into movie stardom, has only seen the scale and ambition of his movies grow since his days as the heir apparent to Tony Scott during his tenure with producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Only one of Bay’s directorial efforts, 1996's The Rock, has landed a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But, of course, movies are more than percentages and tomato splats.

There are some who would say that his work on the Transformers franchise, and the five films he directed, marked a death knell for cinema. Others would say that behind the absurd amount of explosions, helicopter shots, gunfire, lingerie models and more product placement than a one-year subscription of Men’s Health magazine, there is an artist, a genius who has turned commercialism in all of its aspects into an art form. But neither extreme feels fitting. Neither a charlatan nor a virtuoso, Michael Bay is simply Michael Bay. There’s no other filmmaker like him who lives so closely on the edge of good and bad, and that’s part of the appeal. It’s a rarity that I’ve walked away from a Bay film without a headache and burning eyes, and yet… I’m a fan. And 6 Underground, which marks Bay’s first feature for Netflix, may be the perfect Venn diagram of the director’s cinematic ambition, with awful and great overlapping within a territory of pure Bay-hem.

6 Underground follows a team of vigilantes, known only by their numbers, who seek to cut through the world’s red tape and go after the criminal organizations, terrorists, and dictators the world’s governments won’t touch. Bay has assembled quite the roster of talent, including Reynolds, Franco, Melanie Laurent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ben Hardy, Adria Arjona and Corey Hawkins. Written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the script does little to showcase either writer’s talents for heartfelt teamwork as displayed in their work on the Deadpool and Zombieland franchises. Each actor is committed, but in terms of the kind of family unit the team is supposed to have formed by the film’s end, the emotional work and one-on-one dynamics simply aren’t there. There are some great personality types in the mix, and some intriguing ideas, but there’s also a surplus of profound stupidity.

The structure of the first half of the pic, which utilizes flashbacks to showcase how everyone joined the team, and explores the origins of Reynolds’ character, is an absolute mess. This film had three editors and it shows. You’ll give yourself a nosebleed trying to figure out why anyone would put the first hour of the movie together in the way that it is. Seriously, I got a nosebleed watching this and I’m certain it’s related. But the action set-pieces, which we’ll get to, and the zingers by Reynolds, who has fully merged with Deadpool at this point, is enough to keep this ship afloat for its runtime, despite water rushing in through the holes in its hull.

This pic may be the closest Bay ever gets to a superhero movie, yes even more so than his Transformers films. There’s no sense that Bay cares much about individuals. There’s a disaffected look at people that seeps into his characters. Each member of the unit has faked their own death and abandoned their families, all in the efforts to do something better for the world. Never mind cracks about crying mothers, or that Reynolds’ character has left a significant other and a child behind — individual lives don’t matter. And as for the adversaries, hordes of mafiosos, gunmen and militia, well, they are simply sacks of meat, made to be dismembered, bent and broken, until all bodily fluids come leaking out. It’s a very wet movie, with blood and gray matter given just as much of the spotlight as the sweat that Bay always manages to make look so good. But despite the lack of care given to individual lives, Bay is interested in the big picture. This is where the superhero aspect comes in. The team’s efforts to liberate Turgistan from dictator Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz) and perform a coup that replaces him with his democracy loving brother Murat (Payman Maadi) is tied up in the idea of big gestures of social justice and change. Small scale morality doesn’t interest Bay, but the big, world-shaking kind does.

6 Underground lacks the surprising tact and empathy that made 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) one of Bay’s best; yet, partly because it’s not associated with true events, it lacks the utter disdain for victims and mishandling of them that makes Pain & Gain (2013) his worst. While there are platitudes present, no more complex than the ones offered in the Transformers films, 6 Underground feels well intentioned, and however shallow, there is something instinctually affecting to Bay’s work when he’s being genuine. No one watches Bay movies because they’re looking for complex feelings, but like Armageddon (1998), sticking to essential human truths about love and loss does work wonders in keeping you invested in the action. And the action set-pieces in 6 Underground are unhinged. Bay is one of the few helmers who knows how to consistently top set-pieces within a film. The opening car chase would have been the finale of any other movie. Yet here, it’s the smallest scale and least exciting. The ensuing ones have so much going on that they just have to be experienced to be believed. The final set-piece involving magnets — yes, magnets — is arguably one of the best action sequences Bay has done in his career.

The idea that 6 Underground won’t be for everyone is an understatement. Only the strong will survive its two-hour-and-seven-minute runtime, and those who do survive will wonder what will be left of them. Bay goes for broke here, employing all of his conventions and then some. If you thought the filmmaker was unrestrained in the theatrical marketplace, well, he’s in full on berserker mode for the streaming platform. My opinion on this movie vacillated wildly while watching it and I went from thinking it might be one of Bay’s worst to one of his best to landing somewhere in between. Although I have to admit just writing about the experience makes me feel even a little more favorable towards it. Your tolerance may vary, and some will have a good time and others will walk away with a raging headache. I got a bit of both. Netflix is looking at 6 Underground to become a franchise on its service, and after all this, I have to say, load me up with Tylenol and let’s see how much further Bay can walk on the tightrope of good and bad.