ArmageddonArmageddon and Pain & Gain are the two foundations upon which I’ve built my Michael Bay apologist house. Armageddon is genuinely ridiculous fun, as NASA recruits everyman Bruce Willis to go into space and stop an asteroid from colliding with Earth. And Pain & Gain, where bodybuilders played by the Rock, Mark Wahlberg, and Anthony Mackie kidnap Tony Shalhoub in an attempt to extort him, is not only a perfect satire of American excess, it suggests Bay might be self-aware about his reputation for excessive action. They’re exceptions to the usual rules for Bay movies, which can be an endless grind of “heavy on the explosions and light on everything else” Transformers action. But they’re distinct enough to suggest that Bay, given the license and freedom to escape the studio system, would be capable of producing something more.
So it’s a disappointment to discover that Bay’s new Netflix movie, 6 Underground, is utterly joyless.
The film, seemingly founded on the rough premise of “What if superheroes, but real life?” stars Ryan Reynolds as an eccentric billionaire who calls himself “One.” He’s recruited five men and women (also referred to by numbers, hence the movie’s title) to become a vigilante squad taking down criminals and dictators around the world. They ostensibly all have specific skills — for instance, “Six” (Dave Franco) is introduced as “the Driver” — but the rules are loose at best. When Six gets replaced, his stand-in, “Seven” (Corey Hawkins), isn’t recruited to fulfill the getaway-driver role, he’s just recruited because he’s a good soldier.
The rest of the designated roles also seem fairly facile; these protagonists might as well be “Lady Doctor” or “Parkour Guy.” That one-dimensionality makes 6 Underground feel like an endlessly looping title screen in an arcade game. Each playable character has a specific thing they’re supposedly good at, and they cycle around in vapid, repetitive action until someone hits the start button on the controller. Except in this case, the characters never develop past that initial impression, and the film doesn’t, either.
The mission that plays out in the absence of player/divine intervention is a coup in the fictional nation of Turgistan. The team plans to depose the dictator (Lior Raz) currently in power and replace him with his more peaceful brother (Payman Maadi). To actually make that happen, One and his cohorts shoot their way through the country, taking the occasional break to bed locals and each other to fulfill the requisite T&A quota.
Naturally, along the way, they begin to realize that their status as “ghosts” — presumed dead by their friends and loved ones, forced to disavow any personal attachments to others or each other — might not be all it’s cracked up to be, in spite of One’s monologuing about how “freeing” it is to be “dead.” Seven finds One’s rule about leaving any struggling team member behind particularly difficult to abide, and he cites his former experience as a soldier as a reason he can’t just abandon members of the squad.
The plot is fairly simple, and not bad in theory. But it’s so overloaded with incoherent action scenes and cringingly flat dialogue (one scene features a character speaking entirely in famous movie quotes) that any features that might have made 6 Underground a fun caper get completely lost. This is Bay at his worst, a game of explosion “yes, and” that’s exhausting to watch. The action is so non-stop that it becomes perfunctory rather than fun, and at times even obligatory, i.e. “Shoot, we have to find something for Parkour Guy to do. Leap over some construction beams, I guess?” There’s also no attempt to hide the film’s sponsors, from the giant Red Bull sticker Reynolds sports on a helmet at the beginning of the movie to prominent shots of Chopard watches and similar goods.
The film briefly plays with the idea that a billionaire with no accountability and unlimited access to resources and weapons — essentially, a real-life Tony Stark — is a terrible thing, 6 Underground is too full of explosives to have room for any characters more complex than “bad-ass good guy” and “bad guy.” It’s a boring dichotomy, not to mention territory we’ve seen Reynolds tread many times already (Deadpool, Deadpool 2, Detective Pikachu, The Hitman’s Wife, the upcoming Free Guy, the list goes on).
What kills me most, however, is that amid all the cacophony, there’s one joke that hints at the kind of joyful mayhem Bay is capable of. In the middle of a fight, the vigilantes trigger a noise that’s meant to disrupt the armed men who are after them. It’s referred to as a “song,” but as the tone grows louder and louder, its true form becomes clear: it’s the ear-shattering Dolby digital surround sound noise, stretched out so it’s unrecognizable right up until it actually shatters all the glass in the building. It’s a funny touch, but just a blip of something fresh in a movie that otherwise feels like it’s worn into the ground, and ready to wear out any viewer who makes the mistake of jumping in.