6 Underground (2019)
They Say No One Can Save The World. Meet No One.
It took me a while to realize that I love Michael Bay as a director, and I totally get it if you haven’t come to the same conclusion. After all, his run on the Transformers franchise is widely reviled as one of the worst ever committed to film (although I love the gonzo ‘fuck the audience’ audacity of 2017’s The Last Knight to no small degree). Still, there’s a reason that ‘Bayhem’ has become a byword for a certain style of big screen, big concept action; springboarding off of the sort of polished, hyperkinetic, macho cinema pioneered by the much-missed Tony Scott back in the day to produce a meaner, leaner breed: even faster, even manlier, bombastic, propulsive, explosive, corrosive.
… and nationalistic, and misogynistic, and — fundamentally — misanthropic, let’s not dissemble. I think Bay would be a really interesting guy to have an uncensored, off-the-record conversation with because his work is marked with an almost complete dislike and mistrust of humanity and its institutions. Bay likes machines, and people who act like machines, which explains his love of vehicles, tech, and elite military units where every individual is defined by their function rather than their actual psychology. On the surface, that makes him a good fit for Transformers, but the big robots are actually too human for Bay. Much better are the anonymous covert killers of Netflix’s new actioner 6 Underground, who don’t even have names* — they have numbers.
Penned by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the ‘real heroes’ behind the Deadpool flicks, 6 Underground is a comic book adaptation without a comic book to adapt. It feels like a better Suicide Squad (damn faint praise I know), seeing as it’s about a covert squad of operatives whose remit is to go after the bad guys that legit institutions won’t touch. In this case, it’s Turgistani (not a real joint, just a generic Central Asian desert nation) dictator Rovach Alimov (Israeli actor Lior Raz, familiar to western audiences from 2018’s Mary Magdalene and Operation Finale), the sort of one-note scumbag military strongman you kinda wish a black ops team would put a Stinger missile through.
What’s interesting is that this is the team’s shakedown mission. While they’re all very good at their individual jobs, they’re not a cohesive unit yet, having recently been recruited by billionaire inventor ‘One’ (Ryan Reynolds), who is apparently very adept at convincing people to fake their own deaths and give up their entire lives for the greater good as he sees it. There’s ex-CIA operative ‘Two’ (Mélanie Laurent of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and the clear MVP here), hitman ‘Three’ (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), thief and parkour expert ‘Four’ (Ben Hardy), doctor ‘Five’ (Adria Arjona), wheelman ‘Six’ (Dave Franco) and Delta Force sniper ‘Seven’ (Corey Hawkins).
You might have noticed that’s one more than the title indicates is required, and you’d be right — a fatality necessitates Seven’s recruitment, although it’s not clear why six is the magic number, or why One doesn’t shanghai someone with the same skillset as the deceased member. For the sake of enjoyment, it’s best not to delve too deeply; the narrative underpinning 6 Underground is barely held together by the Rule of Cool, and functions only to knit together a number of incredibly intricate action set pieces.
And my sweet Satan, those action set pieces are *chef kiss* exquisite.
Cinematic action is its own reward, and if you’re a fan of it, you learn to accept a lot of things in order to get to the main course of an action movie, which is the staging of on-screen violence. So yes, 6 Underground fumbles a lot of balls in terms of character (thin), plot (simplistic), plausibility (absent), themes (reactionary and adolescent), etc., etc. But it gives us some simply superb action sequences, starting with a car chase sequence through the picturesque streets of Florence, Italy, that is honestly one of the best I’ve seen since, oh, let’s say John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998) (Fury Road beats it, but nothing in the Fast & Furious series does, and I’m as surprised as you are). The climax is a multi-part military coup that involves — among many other things — a commando raid on a superyacht, some powerful electromagnets, and a room full of knives, resulting in one of the silliest and most audacious kills on record. In between? Everything you could want — gunfights, fistfights, explosions (so goddamn many explosions), and a lot of very impressive parkour.
But, as Sam Peckinpah once opined, it’s how you blow up a bridge, and Bay’s instincts for staging and cutting have not lost a second. Working with director of photography Bojan Bazelli, who’s worked on everything from Abel Ferrara’s China Girl (1987) to Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013), and a team of editors (bet they had ‘em working in shifts) headed by Oscar-winner William Goldenberg, Argo (2012), 6 Underground delivers a barrage of imagery that at times runs right up to the edge of overwhelming, but still retains spatial and narrative clarity within the scene. Bay is effectively trying to work out how quickly he can cut, how much information he can jam into the viewer’s brain in the shortest possible shot duration, and still retain some kind of cohesion and, look, I’m here for it. There are things in this film I’ve never seen before — a grenade launched into a car clocking a bad guy in the face before it blows up, a pigeon bouncing off the bonce of a fleeing woman, little gags and moments that are just gleefully fun in a very adolescent way.
And yes, ‘adolescent’ in this context means that character is basically defined by ‘whatever the actors can do with what they’re given,’ with Reynolds doing his thing and Laurent’s icy spy taking best in show and everyone else keeping their end of the bargain up. It also means that the whole thing is very male gaze-y to a point that is frankly uncomfortable in the current climate — I’m at the stage where I just shrug and mutter ‘Bay gotta Bay,’ but if it’s a dealbreaker for you, I get it — still, he seems to have curbed his worse excesses in that department since the genuinely cringe-y Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).
It’s Bayhem, baby — rapid-cut, multi-camera, big-budget action spectacle, rotating hero shots at magic hour, orange and teal for real, gleaming cars, oiled guns, wraparound shades, stubble, conspicuous consumption, conspicuous destruction, beautiful women, American flags fluttering at sunset, exotic locales doomed to demolition, a sneer and a leer and a bang. And I’ll tell you what, it feels more tactile and impressive than most studio action movies that come down the pike these days. I’ll take it — and I’ll take a sequel every two years, please and thank you.
*’Kay, technically they do, and they reveal them in a big soppy emotional moment — but I can’t remember any of them at less than a week’s remove from seeing the film.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson