It might sound ridiculous to call Michael Bay an auteur, but when it comes to large scale action presented to you in the most machismo and commercialized way possible- there is no greater artist than Bay. The director began his career making music videos before shifting towards commercials, where his campaigns for Miller Lite and “Got Milk” earned him award prestige. He then moved on to feature films, where he dominated the late 90s and early 2000s with hits like Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. In 2007, he broke box office records with the first Transformers movie. He would stick with the multi-billion dollar franchise for the next decade.
It is almost impossible to talk about action movies without bringing up Bay- whose commitment to outrageous yet practical stunts, crashes, and explosions (even within CG-heavy films) is something to genuinely admire. The director’s eye for special effects and stylized action is what he is most famous for. This is ultimately what keeps bringing audiences back to his movies. Even as the Transformers series got progressively worse, culminating in 2017’s thoroughly terrible The Last Knight, few were denying that the striking visuals remained along with the visceral and bombastic action.
Bay does not write his own films, so his work is often at the mercy of whatever screenplay he has been given. Still, even across a plane of multiple different writers, it is not difficult to make out a pattern. Michael Bay movies, as fun as they may be, are often hollow and offer little in the realm of characterization. The women in his films are usually presented strictly through the lens of the male gaze; hyper-sexualized and objectified throughout, they serve little purpose besides acting as a reward for the traditionally heroic masculine man. Bay’s politics also seem rather messy, ranging from problematic jingoism to outright offensive views. In 2016’s 13 Hours, which attempts to make sense of the 2012 incident in Benghazi, Libya, a United States soldier tells a Middle Eastern comrade that his people “need to figure this shit out”.
These are new times now, Michael Bay is finally free from the creativity-killing grasp of Transformers and his most recent film, 6 Underground, is not based on a true story. A billionaire tech-genius, codenamed One (Ryan Reynolds), decides to use his vast wealth and resources for the greater good. After faking his own death, One recruits other highly skilled people and fakes their deaths thus turning them into an off the grid squad. Their only mission is to rid the world of the worst people imaginable- criminals and terrorists that governments refuse to touch. In this particular endeavor, the target is Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz), the dictator of the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Turgistan.
Suicide Squad-Esque graphics splatter across the screen as the characters are introduced: One is simply called the billionaire, Two (Mélanie Laurent) is a CIA spook who acts as a spy, Three (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is the hitman, Four (Ben Hardy) is named Skywalker after his parkour skills, Five (Adria Arjona) is the doctor, and Six (Dave Franco) is the driver. The film opens as the sextet is engaged in a lengthy car chase through the streets of Florence, Italy, before taking off to other extravagant locales such as Las Vegas and Hong Kong. Tires squeal, bullets fly, agents sprint across the roofs of iconic landmarks, and Reynolds unleashes as many quips as he can muster- all in an opening sequence that is indistinguishably Michael Bay.
Enough beating around the bush, 6 Underground is an awful film. One that might possibly be Bay’s worst. The characters are paper-thin, inconsistent, and unlikable. The plot is completely incomprehensible and the atrocious editing magnifies these problems tenfold. This all becomes obvious only in the first 20 minutes if you are even able to make it that far. Cheesy blood-stained title cards mark the opening as taking place in “The Past”, but then it suddenly changes to “17 Minutes Earlier” before switching back to “The Past” again after only a couple of minutes. The narrative is instantly confusing, becoming impossible to follow as it jumps back and forth between locations and times never sticking with one or the other for longer than five minutes. As if in a desperate bid to never lose your attention, no single shot seems to stay onscreen longer than ten seconds. This confounding editing is paired with an equally as hectic soundtrack, making the film a wholly exhausting experience. After a half-hour, I desperately wanted it to end. After an hour and twenty minutes with forty-five still to go, I needed it to end.
There are normally still things to enjoy among Bay’s mindless explosions and shameless product placement, but 6 Underground will test the patience of even the most devoted fans. It is tough to be in awe of the impressive effects when the camera refuses to linger on them for any substantial measure of time. You cannot possibly get a grasp of what you are supposed to be seeing. There are jokes about Spice Girls and Britney Spears (how topical); one character’s entire personality seems dedicated to spouting off incredibly tired movie quotes. The rest of the humor feels just as ancient and plodding. The film was written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the duo behind both Zombieland and both Deadpool movies. These two surely have a well-enough grasp of what is funny and what is not, but that all seems to have gone out the window in favor of giving in to Ryan Reynolds’ worst tendencies- which lurch into aggressively unfunny territory.
Reynolds’ character is also cartoonishly perfect- the outdated ideal version of a masculine hero. He has it all: looks, brains, money, power, combat skills, you name it. He also has a more artistic side by attending Shakespeare plays because of course. While in a bar, he can outwit other men in battles of words and justly reap his reward of sex with the impressed bartender. Other characters are given equally as ridiculous treatment. In one scene, Three goes to visit his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother. In a very brief moment of recollection, she accuses her son of being a murderer. The film then jumps to a flashback of Three carrying out a hit job where the victim’s daughter accidentally witnesses the kill. An expression resembling remorse creases Three’s face- perhaps he regrets his actions and what they have cost? These glimpses of a better slightly more nuanced (although not exactly original) film are immediately destroyed by whatever nonsensical scene might come next. In this case, Three is then depicted mowing down bad guys while cackling with glee. So much for that.
It is so strange, a film like this should be an easy win. 6 Underground is Bay’s first foray into streaming services and at a $150 million budget, it is Netflix’s second most expensive production ever. With a solid cast and a pair of decent writers- what exactly went wrong here? Perhaps it is Bay’s utter contempt for the audience. This movie appears to be targeted towards the lowest common denominator, people who have never seen a movie or just have no concept of what makes a movie good or bad. I am not even sure how the dullest of the dull could find this entertaining because it is far too confusing. To feel anything besides frustration and perplexity while watching this is a monumental task. This is a film where you do not learn any of the characters’ names until an hour and a half in. The entire first forty-three minutes is exposition, marked by Reynolds’ telling you that you are all caught up, and even then it still continues to feed you backstory!
6 Underground is nothing less than a form of intellectual pollution. It is ugly, incomprehensible, and deeply cynical as it pushes the narrative that positive change in the world can only be accomplished through violent and merciless means. I am not sure who this is for, but anyone who has the stamina to make it all the way through the end of it deserves to be eligible for financial compensation.