At first blush, it may seem odd that Michael Bay, a director who has multiple $1 billion-grossing movies to his credit, would be cranking out a Netflix film, especially when it would appear that studios would still have an appetite for his brand of action filmmaking. But watching his latest effort, 6 Underground, you can see how much the world has left Bay behind. While other action movies are pushing the envelope, Bay is still churning out his combination of explosions, incomprehensible editing, and violence. Paired with a retrograde, neo-conservative script from Deadpool writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick that seems like it’s been sitting on the shelf since 2005, 6 Underground is perfect for Netflix not because you can queue it up anytime, but because it can play in the background without demanding your attention.
“One” (Ryan Reynolds) is a billionaire who saw an atrocity one day and decided to use his riches to fund an off the books, accountable-to-no-one death squad (sorry, special ops team) to take out bad guys. The hook is that everyone on the team, himself included, has faked their deaths so they have the freedom to move off the grid and take out bad guys like dictator Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz). One’s team is compromised of a CIA agent (Melanie Laurent), a hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a guy who’s good at parkour (Ben Hardy), a doctor (Adria Arjona), and a sniper (Corey Hawkins). Their plan is to take out Rovach, stage a coup in his fictional country of Turgistan, and install Rovach’s non-murderous brother Murat (Payman Maadi). This involves destroying multiple cities and endangering countless lives along the way.
I don’t know if Michael Bay ever saw 2004’s brilliant Team America: World Police. It’s a direct parody of his work, right down to the song “Pearl Harbor” which includes lyrics like “Why does Michael Bay get to keep making movies?” If Bay did see Team America, he may have avoided making a serious version of it with 6 Underground. Instead, 6 Underground seems like Bay’s cynical way of getting in on the superhero franchise game while still promoting the neo-conservative viewpoint that freedom can be delivered down the barrel of a gun, and everyone needs to just get out of the good guys’ way. It was a silly viewpoint back in 2004 (hence Team America) and it’s rendered even sillier now when you see that disposing of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi hasn’t magically fixed Iraq and Libya, respectively. That’s not to say that dictators are good, but rather that nation-building is hard and there are thousands of dead people who are a testament to that.
The problem with positioning 6 Underground as its own kind of superhero movie is that setting and frameworks matter. Marvel movies are also a good-guys-vs-bad-guys conflict, but the audience gets some distance when your movies involve magic stones and a talking raccoon. Even Bay’s own Bad Boys and Bad Boys II have this distance in the cops-and-criminals framework where drug kingpins are bad, and it takes two Miami cops to save the day. But in the realm of geopolitics where the way to fix entire countries is just a matter of killing a dictator, the worldview seems childish, callous, and painfully obtuse when you look at a post-9/11 world. I’m sure if you asked Bay, he would say he’s apolitical, but the viewpoint being pushed by a movie like 6 Underground is that the best kind of soldier is the one who’s only accountable to his own conscience and that any problem can be solved with violence. Captain America can get away with this because he’s 90-year-old World War II veteran who fights space aliens. It’s harder to swallow in a film where the bad guy uses chemical weapons on children.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Michael Bay as a director is that he only has one level. You can see this problem in movies like The Island, Pain & Gain, and 13 Hours where Bay tries to venture outside his typical blockbuster comfort zone only to render any story back into a blockbuster. Michael Bay is wedded to his style of explosions, slo-mo, constantly panning cameras, speed, and noise. He’s not a storyteller as much as he’s a formula, and everything that goes through that formula can come out looking horribly deformed on the other side. It’s fine if your movie is nothing more than robots punching each other (although even here Bay wore out his welcome and was immediately shown up by the spinoff Bumblebee), but 6 Underground knows there are bad things in the world. Put it through the Michael Bay formula, and a chemical weapons attack on innocent people has the same action framing as any other series of explosions but the music is slightly sadder. It’s super gross.
What’s most striking is that Bay, for all his technical proficiency in staging action shots, made a film that looks like it belongs back in 2005. The realm of action movies has moved far beyond anything Bay is doing here. He doesn’t have the stuntwork of a franchise like Mission: Impossible. He doesn’t have the choreography of a franchise like John Wick. He’s an MTV music video director in a world where MTV no longer has any cultural cache, but he’s still playing the same songs while action blockbusters have passed him by. The cynicism of “I’ll give you a team movie of badasses doing bad ass things like violently murdering guys and then having sex” (this is not hyperbole; this happens) only serves to speak to an audience that isn’t there anymore. That makes 6 Underground perfect for Netflix, which just wants to say it made a blockbuster and doesn’t have to worry about how many people tune in.
For some, the Netflix aspect gives 6 Underground a lower bar of entry and maybe something to pop on in the background like a hyper-violent screensaver where Ryan Reynolds fires off a series of quips. But even if you were to take the time to sit down and watch it, there’s no escaping how incompetently made the whole affair is. The editing is abysmal, the storytelling is frustratingly jumbled (perhaps because, like Reese and Wernick’s Deadpool, the plot of “get the bad guy” is so thin the only way to flesh it out is to go back in time and do prolonged origin story stuff), and the set pieces are exhausting with violence bordering on the sadistic.
It’s not so much that 6 Underground is a parody of Bay as much as everything about this movie is horribly played out. The film belongs in the mid-2000s rather than 2019 from its politics to its set pieces (the fact that there’s a parkour guy when that fad peaked in 2006 should tell you something). The film is a bunch of uninteresting set pieces tied together with a thin story and sophomoric humor padded with some macho posturing and jingoism. And yeah, that’s a Michael Bay movie, but it’s never felt more tedious and unnecessary than it does with 6 Underground.