If there’s one thing that Luther Vandross and Michael Bay have in common, they both believe in never having too much of what they love. For Vandross, it’s the love of a good woman. For Bay, it’s excess. Bay has done Vandross’s 1981 hit well in a career directing some of the most over-the-top action blockbusters in Hollywood history. His movies have been pretty good and very bad, but they were never subtle and rarely boring. Bay is all about spectacle and for nearly 20 years, he mined entertainment out of his bloated business plans. But ever since Transformers: Age of Extinction five years ago, Bay has been showing signs of laziness and complacency. His moves are still overpriced, overstuffed schlock, but he stopped coming up with new ways to wow audiences with special effects and stunts. His action scenes recycled spots, his cinematography would never leave magic hour and his rotating cameras became more dizzying than dazzling. He even tried getting serious at some points, trying his hand at satire (Pain & Gain) and war politics (13 Hours). His last effort, the nonsensical and stupefying Transformers: The Last Knight, showed Bay at a crossroads in his own career. Is one of Hollywood’s most profitable action ringmasters getting bored with himself?
Bay must certainly think so, because he’s back with a vengeance. 6 Underground is stripped of transforming robots and constant laser beams, bringing Bay back to bearded badasses with guns trying to save the world. The titular 6 are a ragtag group of specialists who’ve faked their deaths to remain anonymous in their globe-trotting escapades toppling corrupt military officials. All they have are their gusto and numbers, led by former tech billionaire One (Ryan Reynolds). He’s joined by ex-CIA operative Two (Melanie Laurent), hitman Three (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), parkour-skilled thief Four (Ben Hardy), doctor Five (Adria Arjona) and driver Six (Dave Franco). For their latest job, the six recruit an ex-sniper (Corey Hawkins) as a new member to help organize the liberation of a small country in the Middle East. The new guy wants a bond with the team, but One is strictly business.
Since his flavor of blockbusters don’t bring in the bucks like they used to (at least not for his old studio buddies at Paramount), Bay has taken his business to Netflix. Though you wouldn’t know it considering how 6 Underground is a typical project for Bay. It’s got a price tag of around $150 million, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger, A Cure for Wellness) captures almost every shot with the warm orange sun either rising or setting for maximum glow, there’s plenty of blatant product placement, a macho atmosphere, bits of slow-motion and a lot of explosions. There’s also the expected low-brow humor in the script from Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (Deadpool, Zombieland: Double Tap) that’s very hit and miss. What’s definitely a miss is a story that’s simple at its core but gets unnecessarily complex with boring exposition spat out in rapid-fire dialogue. 6 Underground thinks it has the political intelligence of a Bourne movie, but it’s all filler to get to the next action scene. Its most egregious quality, however, is the horrid editing. Fast-paced and choppy edits are not foreign to Bay’s movies, but 6 Underground’s flow is so confusing it might cause epilepsy. Some shots barely last a second before cutting to a new frame, occasionally going from film camera to a GoPro for a POV-shot (especially for on-foot chase scenes). There are weird continuity errors, sudden changes in color palette and cameras in constant movement. It’s like a tornado of everything frequent in Bay’s movies swirling at your face with nothing for shelter.
While the bad side of Bay is still present, he’s at least not showing signs of laziness this time around. Bay throws everything AND the kitchen sink into 6 Underground right from the get-go with the opening car chase. That “everything” ranges from recovering a detached eye from under the driver’s seat to skateboarding on a rail to use a grenade launcher, and all the car drifts and bloody crashes in between. While nothing else in the movie tops the opening mayhem, the middle action set piece on a Hong Kong luxury apartment comes damn close. Bay even manages to make the key weapon of the climactic action scene be magnets and its as hilariously stupid as it sounds. Bay is also back with an R-rating and he gets every bit of bloody and foul-mouthed mileage out of it. The violence and kills occasionally double as bits of physical comedy (wait ‘til you see Bay’s take on zit-popping). And again, some of the spoken humor actually works this time around. It helps that 6 Underground is both posing like a grown-up while having the atmosphere of a pre-teen playing Call of Duty.
That atmosphere is amplified by the performances. It’s surprising that Reynolds isn’t one of the producers here, considering the Deadpool writers are on board and he’s in Wade Wilson-mode: smarmy, sarcastic, condescending and occasionally charming. In fact, every actor here is mimicking Reynolds attitude to varying degrees of success. Garcia-Rulfo and Laurent are an inspired comic duo, the former wearing the muscle stereotype like a charm and the latter being a great straight-man to his wackiness. Arjona and Hardy, on the other hand, are just pretty faces Bay likes to make the camera ogle at. Reynolds still makes for a fine leading action hero, but he seems exhausted and annoyed most of the time. In fact, Hawkins is as charismatic and somehow more likable than Reynolds.
It’s not wrong to say 6 Underground is a return to form for Bay. Rid of the weight of franchise continuation or misplaced jingoism, Bay has delivered his lightest and most enjoyable movie since 2005’s The Island. But this is still a Michael Bay movie, meaning it’s loud, obnoxious, immature and occasionally incoherent. He still knows how to put on his kind of show, but he might be overcompensating for the fact that he’s run out of new tricks. Still, it’s a brave new world where people can watch the gargantuan filmmaking ego explode and bleed from the comfort of their homes. Has Bay finally outgrown the big screen, or have movie theaters matured from him?