Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Rated R, 127 minutes
Directed by: Michael Bay
Director Michael Bay’s 6 UNDERGROUND wastes no time in making it abundantly clear that it’s part of his oeuvre of big, bombastic actioners. His free-wheelin’ aesthetic is not solely evident in the bullet-riddled, explosive, Rube-Goldbergian set pieces, but also in what should be the calmer, more static moments in this film about a specialized squad of hitmen (and women!) determined to eradicate villainy. Though he’s ditched the need to be taken seriously (Buh-bye, Benghazi movie!) and risen above the abject incoherence of his deliriously, delightfully dumb space robots series, the beloved schlockteur finds a bit of a sweet spot amidst the mayhem and madness.
Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese keep their plot tight and right (just like how Bay likes to spotlight the women in his films). There’s an elite rogues’ gallery of agents, functioning and thriving off the grid, hoping to rid the world of menacing scumbags. Since they operate as a ghost unit, they’ve renounced their names, primarily going by a number so as not to form any emotional attachments. Each of the six has been enlisted by a billionaire lead agent (Ryan Reynolds) to avenge war crimes in the name of socio-political justice. His team of avengers includes a C.I.A spook (Mélanie Laurent), a parkour-loving cat-burglar (Ben Hardy), a jokey Spaniard hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a doctor (Adria Arjona) and the newest recruit, a suicidal war vet (Corey Hawkins).
Years prior, a Turgistani dictator (Lior Raz) launched a series of chemical weapon attacks against his own people in refugee camps. Number One almost died getting caught in the international melee. Ever since then, he’s made it his priority to take down that oppressive regime. The squad’s underground mission is to stage a coup d’état, killing the villain and replacing him with his kinder, gentler brother (Payman Maadi). The team faces a series of obstacles working their way up the chain of command on their globe-trotting adventure.
Each action set piece is torturously elongated, like a rubber band’s elasticity being tested. With each mounting sequence, Bay experiments with how long he can sustain the tension, tugging and pulling before it snaps – or, in a few instances, breaks. The glaring problem is that character fails to remain at the forefront of the action. The players are constantly eclipsed by the show-stopping spectacle of it all – a distractive device to bolster a wafer-thin plot.
Occasionally, the actors’ punchlines are stepped on by special effects, or interrupted by either the blaring scuzzy-aggro-pop soundtrack, or Lorne Balfe’s intrusive score. Sure, they make witty quips and trade barbs like they’re playfully lobbing grenades at each other. Yet it doesn’t amount to much and only serves to bog down the buoyancy of the narrative. And while Bay is content to cut away too early from a comedic bit, he chooses to linger longer on the dead bodies of the goon squad that pile up in the good gang’s wake. We see bodies go limp after getting hit by speeding cars, pelted by javelin-like steel bars, pierced with pointy kitchen gadgetry, and smacked into construction equipment. In the film’s third act, there’s an egregious close-up on the bloody brain cavity of a henchman, whose lifeless body flops to the ground with a dull thud.
There’s blessedly not a windfall of exposition, nor is there any convolution since the meaty portion of our entree has been severely trimmed of its fat. Instead, Bay fills the time with unnecessary padding – superfluous action sequences like the gang’s Vegas trip to kill the baddie’s vacationing generals. Cartoon-like violence ensues as we’re shown zits being popped and cigars being lit in concert with their heads being blown to bits. The filmmakers jostle back and forth on the timeline to dispose of a few of the squad members backstories. Not only are these side tangents allotted too much time, they neglect a few of the agents’ origins. They take time to set up that Number One still sees his widow (Elena Rusconi) and Number Three continues to visit with his Alzheimer’s stricken mother, but there’s no payoff to the story thread that the gang’s loved ones would be threatened.
Despite some of the flaws, Bay and company do revel in the subtle and the grandeur of artistic panache. The clash between two wildly disparate old and new architectural styles within a fictional Middle Eastern city speaks to the duality of the main characters and reflects the narrative’s themes. The rip-roarin’ opening sequence in Florence that establishes our rag tag crew of mercurial antiheroes is a celebration of vulgar auteurism. This car chase in a gaudy lime green Alfa Romeo includes nuns on bicycles, a mime, French bulldogs in peril, pigeons in slow-mo (perhaps a jab at John Woo’s signature doves), Michelangelo’s David sculpture, parkour down the Duomo, and a dangling eyeball. These ingredients come alive when mixed with Bojan Bazelli’s saturated, blown-out cinematography and editors Roger Barton, William Goldenberg and Calvin Wimmer’s flashy, cracklin’ cuts.
Sure to please Bayhem enthusiasts with its rebellious, middle-finger-waving attitude and flair for unapologetic, brutally sophomoric violence, 6 UNDERGROUND delivers on its promise to be the most Michael Bay movie yet. Make of that what you will.
6 UNDERGROUND is available to stream on Netflix on December 13.