If you’re planning to see “6 Underground” in theaters, be sure to get there on time. Within the first six minutes, Michael Bay destroys a plane, a motorcycle, three cars, countless pedestrians and the dignity of three Italian nuns. I’m fairly certain that Ryan Reynolds — who heads up the film’s off-the-grid vigilante squad, for whom this made-for-Netflix action bonanza is named — also kills a high-ranking Mafia lawyer, although the action comes so fast and so furious that it’s hard to say. In any case, moments later, Reynolds whips out the lawyer’s eyeball and uses it to access a retinal scanner, all while moving slightly faster than the speed of thought.
James Bond movies, which virtually invented the pre-title tease, have a reputation for starting out at top velocity, but this is something new. It’s minute-one mayhem (a strategy for which Michael Bay is unusually well suited), and it’s quite likely to become the new normal for Netflix originals — action movies at least — which need to rip your eyeballs out from the get-go or risk losing your attention altogether. As a critic, it’s my job to watch films from beginning to end, but if you were to check my Netflix queue right now, you’d discover five movies with less than a couple minutes viewed of each one. “Continue watching?” the app asks. Naaah.
When you go to a theater, you buy a ticket and chances are, you sit through to the end credits. But at home, what’s to stop you from bailing on a Michael Bay movie after the first dull stretch? So Michael Bay’s solution? Never a dull moment. Unapologetically R rated, “6 Underground” is probably the most action packed of his non-“Transformers” movies, which requires the attention-deficit hyperactivity director to cram most of his exposition in between explosions, starting with the crew’s maiden mission in Florence, Italy.
While racing through the European city’s narrow streets in a nitro yellow-green Alfa Romeo, the 6 Underground are identified one at a time. There’s Dave Franco, “the driver”; Reynolds, “the billionaire”; Mélanie Laurent, the (inexplicably French) “CIA spook”; Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, “the hit man”; Adria Arjona, “the doctor” (who never touches a gun); and Ben Hardy, “the skywalker” (a clever name for a parkour cat burglar). These characters know each other only by number, Reynolds’ “One” informs us, to better protect them from forming attachments. Despite a running “Leave It to Beaver” joke, they are not a family, One insists, but an elite group of “ghosts” — super-skilled, ultra-lethal experts in their respective fields who’ve faked their deaths in order to “haunt the living for what they’ve done.”
If they were superheroes, their power would be invisibility. But they’re not, and that poop-green coupe is proof that they’re not exactly trying to keep a low profile. The presumed-dead gimmick doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny, but that doesn’t so much matter when the movie doesn’t slow down long enough to let you pick apart such details. Frankly, sloppy as Bay’s whiplash editing style can be at times, the Florence sequence is a marvel of multitasking (Five removes a bullet from Two’s side while Six steers the car, pulling over long enough for Two to jump out and shoot up a fluorescent orange henchman’s vehicle) and narrative efficiency, so long as coherence isn’t a priority.
But here’s another aspect in which Bay may need to adjust his style for Netflix — which is positioning “6 Underground” as the service’s big December bandwidth-buster, à la “Bird Box” and “Bright”: The director packs the important information so densely into the movie’s first 10 minutes that audiences may be loath to look away even for a moment in the two hours still to come. That means no bathroom breaks, no email checking and no excessive blinking, lest you miss anything (unless your fellow viewers don’t mind your hitting pause).
Fortunately, it’s virtually impossible to sustain that level of intensity for an entire feature, and Bay and screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese allow for brief moments to catch one’s breath. In that opening scene, for instance, the Alfa Romeo speeds through Florence’s Accademia Gallery, pulling up just short of Michelangelo’s David to deliver a brief art history lesson. “Is the David the one with the really small…?” asks Six, sizing up the statue’s marble manhood — as if Bay’s entire oeuvre hasn’t been one great big case of overcompensation. Still, the moment says a lot about his priorities: Bay has no qualms about destroying a few irreplaceable artworks in service of what (per the press kit) car pro Joey Freitas describes as “creating our own visual art.”
Well, it’s certainly not great literature, but if you can get past the imbecilic script, there’s no question that Bay has seized the opportunity to make “6 Underground” as visually stunning as such a project can withstand. That still means ogling women, although when not obliged to vamp about in lingerie or skin-tight cocktail dresses, Laurent and Arjona come across as impressive action figures in their own right. Despite a lot of unnecessary flashbackage (or maybe not enough), it’s unclear what about these characters’ respective pasts (especially the women’s) would want to make them part of a billionaire-funded vigilante organization.
“6 Underground” belongs to the school of “if you keep things moving fast enough, nobody will stop to question the logic.” The movie explains how One earned his fortune (in something called “micro-magnets,” which pays off late in a set-piece involving a massive superconductor) but never reveals how he became such an efficient killer, or why he’d want to be. Rather, the movie views the world as “an endless, evil, shitty loop … wrapped in red tape,” and sees the 6 Underground as the apolitical answer to our prayers. Their mission is to take out a dictator named Rovach (Lior Raz), the top offender on One’s private list of the world’s 10 most wanted evildoers — leaving the others for potential sequels, if Netflix judges the film’s performance worthy of the investment.
Rovach oversees a Middle Eastern country that looks like a cross between Syria (with its refugees cowering in bombed-out cities) and the United Arab Emirates (which serves up such locations as
the semispherical Aldar Headquarters Building and the etched-wall atrium of the Louvre Abu Dhabi). One’s scheme involves taking out Rovach’s four top generals in Vegas, liberating his democracy-minded brother (Iranian actor Payman Maadi of “A Separation”) from house arrest in Hong Kong, then staging a televised coup on his home turf.
After one of the gang dies early on, One recruits a jaded Delta Force sniper (Corey Hawkins) to bring the number back to an even six. That’s one of the film’s few quiet moments, and once Seven is on board, the dynamic between the not-friends, not-family, and not-remotely-Cleaver-like gang begins to improve. They still squabble, but at least now, they’re less likely to abandon one of their own if the mission goes awry. And the missions always go awry.
One thing’s for certain: Bay’s approach to action seems likely to drive a lot more viewing than the service’s awards titles. Just today, Netflix chief Ted Sarandos claimed that 26.4 million households (that’s one-fifth of all U.S. households) watched at least 70% of “The Irishman” in its first week. That’s a big fat lie — although I don’t have the data, only anecdotal evidence, to prove it. If impressive numbers matter to the company, then Bay’s their man: No one specializes in wall-to-wall action quite like Bay, who adopts Tony Scott-level abstraction in his editing here, relying far more on tight framing (for the smaller screens?) than usual, and even going so far as to incorporate nimble consumer-grade camera footage for the parkour scenes. The dizzying mix will make audiences grateful for Netflix’s 10-second rewind feature — and may even set repeat-viewing records.