2019, R, 128 min. Directed by Michael Bay. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Mélanie Laurent, Adria Arjona, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Corey Hawkins, Ben Hardy, Dave Franco, Lior Raz, Payman Maadi.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Dec. 13, 2019
When you’re responsible for two of the highest-grossing R-rated movies in Hollywood history – one a direct sequel to the other, no less – you’re bound to generate a little buzz around your projects. And when you are paired with one of the signature action directors of the past two decades, that’s how you really make a splash. Even those, like myself, who have grown a little weary of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s meta-action-comedies had to admit that a Michael Bay collaboration was some real Brewster’s Millions-type behavior by Netflix. How could you not be at least a little bit curious?
After witnessing an act of ethnic cleansing at the hands of a brutal dictator, the magnetic billionaire known only as One (Reynolds) pledges to fake his death and use his resources to take on the evil men of the world. But not the kind of men the government tells you are evil because of shifting administrations or short-term policies; men who directly abuse their wealth and power to bring about the death of innocents. With the help of a ragtag group of mercenaries – led by Two (Laurent), a former CIA operative, and Three (Garcia-Rulfo), a retired hit man – One launches an all-out assault on one such dictator (Raz), arranging to free the tyrant's brother (Maadi) and bring a new era of democracy to a war-torn country.
With films like Zombieland and Deadpool, screenwriters Reese and Wernick have come to represent a type of self-indulgent action excess that owes much to Bay’s body of work. And for 15 minutes at the beginning of 6 Underground, the marriage of Reese, Wernick, and Bay shows real promise. Gone is the bloodless violence of Bay’s biggest movies; as our band of mercenaries race across the streets of Italy, their pursuers splash into brick walls, are impaled by steel bars, and liquefy before our eyes as a result of high-speed collisions. In one standout moment, a character is shot point-blank with an RPG, and we watch his nose shatter and teeth fly through the air. Only then does the missile detonate.
Stripped of its portentousness and punctuated with Reese and Wernick’s signature humor, Bay’s action prowess gives the sense of a director approaching his final form. It’s a sight to behold – and then, just as suddenly as it began, it’s over. 6 Underground transitions into a pseudo-political story of mercenaries who decide to fight dictatorial fire with fire. Gone are bombastic car chases set to not one, but two Muse songs; soon the film transitions into a dour exploration of men and women whose only true fear is human intimacy. For a film so determined to construct characters out of attitudes that it introduces each cast member as a number and a profession, this pivot to “grounded” storytelling is a catastrophic mistake.
This transition also demands we treat 6 Underground with something approaching sincerity, and that opens the film to more harsh criticisms of its character development and central themes. Crafting a revenge narrative around a billionaire who funds his own private paramilitary force is certainly a choice in 2019; suggesting that widespread political dissent is unthinkable without infighting in the ruling class is quite another. Once 6 Underground deludes itself into thinking it has something to say about power and those who wield it, the many, many plot holes and discarded character threads we might’ve ignored in an action-comedy are dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight.
Perhaps if 6 Underground had ended instead of opened with its most imaginative action sequence, much of what came before could have been regarded as a slow escalation of style and substance. As the film is currently constructed, however, 6 Underground feels twice as disappointing for its early success. First impressions matter, and for all the wrong reasons, Reese, Wernick, and Bay are unable to make good on theirs.