Indignant about his government’s unwillingness to bring the world’s despots to justice, a cocky billionaire recruits a diverse team of specialists and starts hunting warlords in off-the-grid, accountable-to-nobody fashion. You might think that director Michael Bay is angling to make his star, Ryan Reynolds, the Tom Cruise of a dumber, car-crashier version of the Mission: Impossible films. But what his new 6 Underground actually feels like is the over-serious pilot episode of a gimmick-driven, globetrotting ensemble adventure hoping to pass for glamorous on network TV circa 1987. Trouble is, those shows — hacky and predictable as they were — hit their origin-story beats much more satisfyingly than this bloated, dull action flick.
At least fans who still give Bay extravaganzas a chance don’t have to leave home to do it: After hitting select theaters Dec. 11, it joins the dross on Netflix a mere two days later.
“I know what happens when you die,” Reynolds announces in voiceover in the opening scene. “If you’re lucky enough that the world believes you’ve died when you haven’t, and if you have a few billion dollars sitting around, you can spend the rest of your years righting the world’s wrongs without worrying about mortal entanglements like marriages and mortgages. Well, maybe. But isn’t your old accountant going to start wondering how a dead man keeps siphoning millions out of his bank accounts?”
Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese — whose personal balance sheets include a G.I. Joe dud or Alien ripoff for every Deadpool or Zombieland — don’t care a bit about how this character makes being deceased work for him, and never imagine a single instance in which it helps our man (or those he convinces to follow his lead) get something done. Instead, they just keep asserting the value of this disentanglement from the world, over and over, as if they believe they invented the idea and want to ensure they get the credit. No joke: Sixty-five minutes into the film, we’re still hearing solemn pronouncements like, “the world was wrapped in red tape…so we left it all behind, to become no one….”
Being dead doesn’t keep you from getting a driver’s license, evidently. After its “I’m dead, and it rocks!” prologue, the movie kicks off with a 15- or 20-minute car chase through the narrow streets of ancient Florence, a numbingly stylish sequence full of extreme close-ups and lens flare. Innumerable cars fly through the air, bodies are hurled onto pavement, a chopped-out eyeball rolls around in the floorboard, and all the while, a doctor in the back seat of the protagonists’ car is trying to pull a bullet out of the gut of a former “CIA spook” played by Melanie Laurent.
At a couple of points, this sequence seems to want to make us laugh: See driver Dave Franco execute a frantic turn to dodge not only a mother carrying a baby, but fluttering doves and a slobbering puppy as well. But (intentional) laughs have never been one of Bay’s strong suits, and the slo-mo gag is barely a speed bump on the way to more exploding car crashes. At one point, while fleeing several cars that are shooting at our heroes, Franco decides he has to find the Uffizi and literally drive through the famous museum. (Why? Because Netflix has money to burn, and they’ve already spent what they’ve set aside for trying to convince you they support auteurist cinema.)
These characters are known by numbers, not names, evidently because even the dead need to avoid emotional entanglements. The Billionaire is No. 1, of course, which is a phrase that will never be uttered in the 2020 Democratic primary. The other numbers include the Spy and the Driver and the Doctor (Adria Arjona), a Hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Thief (Ben Hardy) who enjoys parkour-ing around the tops of buildings.
In several cases, you can pretty much forget what the character’s alleged specialty is once the opening sequence is done, since it’ll be irrelevant for the rest of the film — and only in one case will that be because the character has died. When one of the six teammates’ honest-to-goodness kicks the bucket, the Billionaire goes shopping for a No. 7: Corey Hawkins, identified in press notes as “The Operator” when he should really be called “The One Who Retains a Healthy Skepticism About All This Baloney.”
The ungainliness of the storytelling is hard to describe adequately here — and one suspects it can’t all be blamed on the screenwriters — but in between interminable flashbacks, we learn that the Billionaire intends to pull off a coup in a fictitious country, removing an evil dictator and bringing his democracy-loving brother to power. That entails tracking the dictator’s top generals to an arms deal in Las Vegas, where Bay reassures any viewer who’s worried that the male gaze was killed by recent cultural upheaval: In between the ass-level shots of prostitutes in tight dresses, he stretches Laurent across a bed in lingerie and makes sure she holds the pose for a while.
Then we’re off to a Hong Kong luxury penthouse, where the film gets as close as it’ll come to heist-movie enjoyability, but sets its action up in ways that call to mind the much more fun (and much more ridiculous) Dwayne Johnson vehicle Skyscraper. Our heroes get the dictator’s brother out of his gilded prison, then hop over to the ‘Stans, where the Billionaire makes triggering an Arab Spring-style revolt look easy peasy — but not before reminding his collaborators that, since they’re all dead, I tell you, “none of us will be remembered” for what they accomplish on this magnificent day.
We can only hope that statement is true. Those who doubt it will note that, early on, 6 Underground told us that the Billionaire had chosen nine villains who were evil enough to merit his attention. This dictator was only the first on that list. Let’s hope the money — either the Billionaire’s or Netflix’s — runs out before this crew makes its way back to the screen.
Production companies: Skydance, Bay Films
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Melanie Laurent, Corey Hawkins, Adria Arjona, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Ben Hardy, Lior Raz, Payman Maadi, Dave Franco
Director: Michael Bay
Screenwriters: Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese
Producers: Ian Bryce, Michael Bay, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Executive producers: Matthew Cohan, Garrett Grant, Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese
Director of photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production designer: Jeffrey Beecroft
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Roger Barton
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting director: Denise Chamian
Rated-R, 128 minutes