- 6 Underground
- Directed by: Michael Bay
- Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
- Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Mélanie Laurent and Dave Franco
- Classification R; 127 minutes
You know that the film industry is undergoing seismic change when Martin Scorsese decides to work with Netflix. But the real sign that Hollywood is in full-scale disruption mode? That’s when the streaming giant also convinces Michael Bay, a director whose thirst for destructive spectacle is explicitly designed to be enjoyed/tolerated/survived on the largest screen possible, to make a movie that will mostly be consumed at home. Not that Netflix’s limited theatrical reach has diminished Bay’s explosive ambitions – 6 Underground, Bay’s first film away from the traditional studio system and his best action movie in more than a decade, is a riotous and gleefully delirious assault on the senses. It is vulgar. It is absurd. And it is completely enthralling.
Writing these words might send me to movie-critic jail, where every day is Transformers Movie Marathon Day. But I have a big, irrepressible soft spot for Bay’s hyperaggressive style of filmmaking. When his extreme sensibilities connect with just the right knowingly dumb source material – when he is able to completely balance his penchant for gross comedy with nihilistic violence and deliberately far-fetched narratives – the result is beautifully ludicrous chaos. Bad Boys II and The Rock, Bay’s high-water marks, are two of the best action films ever made, completely overwhelming in an almost experimental postmodern fashion (this is the point where I duck and cover). When Bay lets his more crass instincts take over, though – say, his overreliance on CGI nonsense, crude racial stereotypes and undisguised horniness – audiences end up getting punished instead of thrilled. Just two years ago, his fifth (and dear-god-please final) Transformers film, The Last Knight, was so dreadful that I cursed Bay’s names to the heavens, damning him to the hell he put me and millions of other suckers through.
But wouldn’t you know, some prayers are answered. No, Bay didn’t die. But he did come back to life, in a way, with the Ryan Reynolds vehicle 6 Underground. This tale of rogue agents trotting around the globe wiping out dictators and installing their own regimes is peak Bay, in the best possible sense.
The director makes his intentions clear from the get-go, opening his new film with a nearly 20-minute car chase through Florence. With our nameless heroes stuffed into a neon-green Alfa Romeo on the run from a horde of SUV-driving mafiosos, the film proceeds to destroy and then rebuild the cinematic concept of what a chase scene can be. Vehicles are twisted and torn in inventive new fashions. Bodies (including pedestrians!) are thrown into the air and physically rearranged once they come back down to Earth. Blood squirts onto the streets and the screen. Priceless sculptures are mowed down as Bay has his cast speed through the city’s Accademia Gallery, a cheery demolition of high art by the chief practitioner of the low variety. It is an eye-popping exercise that also at one point pauses to focus on a squishy popped-out eye. It is glorious, dangerously smart stupidity.
The rest of the film never quite matches that opening mayhem, although Bay does try his hardest in each and every frame. His biggest obstacle, even more so than usual, is the flimsy script from Reynolds’s Deadpool collaborators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. While some credit has to be given for the team taking on a project totally free of intellectual property and the easy brand recognition that accompanies such franchise fare, the story is not so much original as it is a messy smash of Mission: Impossible and a dozen other spy adventures.
Reynolds stars as a billionaire tech genius who decides to fake his own death and form a superteam of similarly presumed-dead misfits and killers to right the world’s various wrongs. Along for the ride are a former hit man who looks like a low-rent Gerard Butler (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a speed demon who can nearly out-smirk Reynolds (Dave Franco), a CIA agent who seems imported from a classier European movie (Mélanie Laurent) and two or three others who get as much character background as this sentence affords them, which is none. Together, they hatch a plan to stage a coup in the fictional Mideast country of Turgistan, which is a seeming hybrid of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and a profound, insulting misunderstanding of the region’s geopolitics.
The story doesn’t make a lick of sense. Yet it tracks better than the past four Transformers movies combined, and it’s all a means of allowing Bay to execute some of the more outrageous action set-pieces of his career, including but not limited to: a rescue mission atop a Hong Kong tower that nicely strips away the self-seriousness of a similar set-piece from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; an assault on a megayacht that bends the rules of magnetism and physics; a flashback sequence that dares to make parkour interesting again; and the deployment of the booming THX fanfare as a weapon – a solid wink from Bay to all the theatre-owners who will never let 6 Underground into their multiplexes. (It is a true shame that almost no one will be able to watch this in a theatre; although Toronto media got the chance to view 6 Underground at the TIFF Lightbox on Tuesday evening, the film will play at zero Canadian theatres before its Netflix release this Friday.)
Your mileage on Bay’s insanity may vary. But there is no doubt that he is firmly, thrillingly in control of the mayhem modern audiences crave like no other director has ever been or could ever be. And just in case anyone was wondering whether Bay cares about his reputation, he has a villain at one point literally apologize for his “bad taste.” Just before that bad guy is tossed off a skyscraper to his death. Godspeed, Michael Bay. Godspeed.
6 Underground is available to stream on Netflix starting Dec. 13.
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