6 Underground: Unfiltered Bayhem
Every so often a movie comes around that feels as though it may exist outside the bounds of standard film criticism — for whatever reason, the analysis of craft that typically takes place during the course of a review just doesn’t seem quite appropriate for the product unfolding on the screen. You may wonder what kind of film can so perplex a critic: more often than not it is a piece of artistry so profound, so transcendent, that mere words seem insufficient to convey the depth of feeling generated by the magic of cinema. But on occasion, the film in question is instead so clearly uninterested in conforming to accepted notions of quality that it somehow becomes almost compulsively watchable, earning a modicum of respect for its brazenness. As you may have deduced by this point, Michael Bay’s 6 Underground is the latter. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around a billionaire inventor who, after undergoing a crisis of conscience while visiting a country rife with government-perpetrated atrocities, fakes his own death and puts together a black ops team of other “ghosts” to trot the globe and assassinate brutal dictators. If this sounds absurd, don’t worry — it is, and it also doesn’t matter in the slightest. Elements such as character development, narrative coherence, and internal logic are all left by the wayside in favor of Bay’s hyperkinetic editing, myriad explosions, and a running voiceover by Ryan Reynolds that feels like little more than discount Deadpool. If you’ve ever seen a film by Michael Bay, you likely have a sense of what you’re getting into here. One of the more confounding directors of the past quarter-century, Bay’s immense talent and visual eye is matched and perhaps surpassed by his lack of anything resembling good taste (a point hammered home in this movie with almost stunning introspection by a character whose single line is an apology for having bad taste). For my money, he’s made two movies that come close to greatness: 1996’s Alcatraz break-in actioner The Rock (fittingly starring Nicolas Cage, arguably the Michael Bay of acting), and 2013’s bodybuilder crime thriller Pain & Gain, a film that effectively makes the case for Bay’s self-awareness. Pain & Gain seemed like an evolution for Bay, a step towards a new stage in his career where he could weaponize his visual style and bombastic predilections in the pursuit of a new breed of meta-action. Alas, if Pain & Gain was self-aware, 6 Underground feels much more akin to self-parody. Every offensive hallmark of his career is here — senseless violence, objectification of women, you name it — but without any consideration or commentary. Almost every line of dialogue is either excruciating or nonsensical, and the few actors who make it out with their dignity mostly intact do so by way of their own sheer talent (Mélanie Laurent) or Teflon-like charm (Reynolds). Despite all this, the movie is, somehow, not unenjoyable — and, during its action setpieces (notably the opening car chase, spanning nearly 20 minutes), it can be downright entrancing. Oddly enough, one could argue that it is this film, even more so than The Irishman, that most exemplifies the immense downside of the Netflix screening model — this is a movie so flawed that on a television at home, amidst thousands of other options, it can easily be ignored, cast aside the instant something new comes along. But in a theatre, when the lights are down, the screen fills your field of vision, and there’s nowhere else to go, you might just get caught up in Bay’s spell. And perhaps that isn’t what 6 Underground deserves. Perhaps it is reprehensible enough that condemning it to the forgotten outskirts of the cloud is a fitting fate. But perhaps there is also still a place for $150 million explosions of sound and color that can stimulate an adrenaline rush, that can still make us wonder (if only briefly) just how they pulled that off. Is Michael Bay necessarily the standard-bearer in this regard? No, but in a time where so many blockbusters feel like they were made with the home viewing audience in mind, there’s something to be said for the ode to excess that practically begs to be seen in the biggest and loudest manner possible. The fact that 6 Underground won’t be is just another ironic piece in the puzzle of Bay’s career.