If tasked with summarizing the style of Michael Bay in one word, one could do worse than “excess.” Explosions are ten times bigger than you’ll ever find in reality; sex in the atmosphere is constantly ratcheted to 10; and there are few events in his action sequences that aren’t captured from at least two angles. Like the work of any auteur, it’s not going to connect with everybody, but there’s also no denying its unique and ‘know it when you see it” existence.
That all in mind, 6 Underground is really the prototypical piece of Bayhem – only this time things get a bit more amped up on the narrative side thanks to the presence of clever and crafty screenwriting duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. As a result, it’s a movie that works to be a bit more complex than your average Michael Bay movie, but the results of that are a mixed bag thanks to the director’s tendency towards “excess.”
Though the movie has a simple, high-concept logline, it also throws a lot at the wall as it tries to get a bit playful with its storytelling, and the results are uneven and at times questionable. It all comes together in the end, as 6 Underground is operating with a higher tally of good ideas versus bad ideas, but as it's all playing out it feels consistently on the brink of falling apart.
The films marks the fourth time that Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have collaborated with Ryan Reynolds, following two Deadpool titles and the sci-fi thriller Life, though this time around the actor is playing a very different personality starring as One: a mysterious figure with a vague backstory involving making billions as a tech genius who also happens to be legally dead. Recognizing the failings of diplomacy to take truly evil men out of power, he faked his death in the aim of using his resources to start a small and secret organization that can function outside of any kind of designated jurisdictions.
Helping him in this mission is a carefully selected group of specialists who also agree to sacrifice their living identities in pursuit of careers as world-changing vigilantes, all while remaining anonymous to each other. Two (Mélanie Laurent) is a former CIA spook; Three (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is a hitman; Four (Ben Hardy) is a free runner; Five (Adria Arjona) is a doctor; and Six (Dave Franco) is the driver.
Though they have a list of nine total targets (read: plans for eight sequels); 6 Underground finds their sights specifically set on a despot in Turgistan (Lior Raz) who has a habit of gassing his own people to demonstrate his power. Their first stage in the undertaking winds up going horribly wrong, as one of their own is killed in action and is replaced with former Army sniper Seven (Corey Hawkins), but slowly they learn how to operate as a team so that they can accomplish their goal.
While it is clever, 6 Underground gets in its own way by trying to do too much.
There’s a fair amount of legwork that needs to be done simply establishing the basic “rules” of being a part of the central team in 6 Underground – which is really where the initiation of Seven is functional – but the complexity in that is actually really drowned out by the self-inflicted complexity that comes as a result of filling the script with an overabundance of narrative tools. For example, the movie mixes things up by having certain events playing out non-linearly, but on top of that it also employs a specialized series of character-centric flashbacks that are identified by white-on-black title cards… but the story doesn’t actually get around to giving these flashbacks to all of the protagonists.
On a similar level, certain elements are highlighted to add a particular flair into the mix, but wind up disappearing as a result of just not being sustainable. Audiences may get a bit of whiplash as captions fly in and out identifying the film’s crazy number of international locations, but it’s also evident in the classification of the characters – all of whom get a special title card at the beginning of the film that delivers their designated number and a two word description. With the exception of Four, though, who does get to pull off a substantial amount of parkour throughout the film, all of the operatives are pretty much interchangeable when it comes to on-the-ground work. The flash is nice, but payoff is scant.
The opening action sequence of 6 Underground is unquestionably one of the best of the year.
While 6 Underground seems to have Michael Bay a bit off his game trying to juggle everything, he finds his center filming the movie’s bombastic action sequences – of which there are many. The film actually has one of the best first acts of the year, centralized around an approximately 25 minute chase around Florence, Italy, and while the majority of it is pure chaos (adversaries coming out of nowhere, blood spurting, gunshots flying, and a severed eyeball being scanned by a smartphone app), it alternatingly makes you clench and drop your jaw.
Few movies this year will elicit quite as many “oohs” and “aahs,” as Michael Bay really goes for it while being armed with an R-rating. The collateral damage witnessed in vivid detail borders on the disturbing, but it also amplifies the action to ridiculous levels. And while the less said is the better at this point, 6 Underground makes arguably the best pop culture use of magnets since the fifth season of Breaking Bad.
6 Underground puts together a fun cast as an enjoyable ensemble of characters.
Should the opportunity for sequels arise, it would be welcome if not just because the film does bring together a fun ensemble that works well together. Their independent functions in the group may get a bit muddled as various jobs are executed, but what’s ultimately more important is that their personalities play off each other well. Everybody is dishing out one-liners, but doing so with their own edge, and there are some substantial dynamics developed, such as One’s independence-minded mentality vs. Seven’s no man left behind philosophy. While there is a veil of secrecy maintained, we do get to know and like these people by the time the adventure is over.
It should be noted that my experience of 6 Underground is partially colored by the fact that I saw it in a normal movie theater with a full audience, which is something that most people aren’t going to have given the film’s distribution on Netflix. Lacking both the presentation and the crowd reactions, watching it at home won’t be quite the same, but it is still worth checking out. Just be sure to use the biggest screen in your home, and turn the volume all the way up.
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