Kevin: Two legendary filmmaking auteurs recently released the results of their bargain with the Netflix devil, largely forgoing the chance for audiences to see their films in theaters in exchange for the massive budgets needed to make their dream projects, with complete creative control and zero studio interference. With last month’s “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese delivered not just another gangster masterpiece – featuring awards-worthy turns from Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci – but also a career-encapsulating examination of the devastating and long-lasting consequences that can result from even a single act of violence.
With last weekend’s “6 Underground,” Michael Bay delivered a film in which children in a refugee camp are tragically slaughtered AND in which a nun hilariously gives Dave Franco the finger. But while letting Bay off the leash unfortunately resulted in one of his worst films, “6 Underground” does share some surprising parallels with one of his best, 2016’s “13 Hours,” and not just because they both have numerals in their titles:
(Spoilers to follow)
The original synopsis for “6 Underground” indicated that it would concern the exploits of six billionaires who fake their deaths in order to team up and secretly take down the world’s powerful criminals, a premise that in Michael Bay’s hands seemed to guarantee exotic locales, hot models as extras in every shot, and copious high-end product placement. Well all of that exists in the final film, but the team full of one-percenters has been reduced to five 99 percenters and one actual billionaire, played by Ryan Reynolds at his most unbearably Ryan Reynolds-ish.
How did Reynolds make his fortune? I don’t know, something about magnets and phones and shit, I’m not going to spend more time trying to explain it than the movie did. Either way, he fakes his death in a plane crash and recruits five more people to fake their own deaths in order to “make the world a little less shitty” by taking out “some truly world-class evil motherfuckers.” I guess technically he recruits six people, since one of his team, a driver played by Dave Franco, is killed early on thanks to Reynolds’ absolute incompetence as a leader, a trait he will exhibit throughout the film.
So after tossing his designated wheelman into the ocean, Reynolds fills his spot with a Delta sniper who is dealing with PTSD following the slaughter of his entire squad. Why is Reynolds recruiting a sniper to fill the role previously held by a driver, you might ask? I don’t know, why can’t this team just have five members, or seven, or ten? You might also ask how he convinced the other fellow team members to fake their deaths, cut off all ties with family and friends, and spend their rest of their lives being ordered around by someone they actively seem to hate, probably because he’s Ryan Reynolds. Well in the many, many, many flashbacks we get in the first 75 minutes of the film, we learn the following about their pasts:
“Two” (played by Melanie Laurent) – A former agent for the CIA, it’s implied that she is feeling guilt over her role in installing a dictator to lead the fictional Middle Eastern country of Turgistan, which seems to be a combination of Syria, Dubai, and Turkmenistan. We never actually see how Reynolds recruited her.
“Three” (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) – A former hitman, it’s implied he joined the team as penance after killing a man in front of his daughter. We never actually see how Reynolds recruited him either, while his incredibly bizarre introduction in the film makes it appear as though he has some mental issues:
“Four” (played by Ben Hardy) – A jewel thief and expert at this thing called parkour that was really popular in movies in 2006. We do actually see him recruited by Reynolds, who threatens to kill him and then laughs at what a delightful scamp he is.
“Five” (played by Adria Aronja) – A doctor. That’s it, that’s her entire backstory. We only see her performing surgery once in the film, and she doesn’t get any type of flashback. Actually at first I thought she was part of another flashback in which Reynolds seduces a woman tending bar, and that later she would reveal her secret doctor skills to him, since – in one of the many incomprehensible filmmaking decisions in the film – the actress they cast looks incredibly similar to Aronja:
Either way, the only indication we get for why she would give up her previous life for an existence living off the grid is that as a “dead” person she will no longer have to deal with immigration lines. Just when you think Bay is about to get political, she quickly adds, “Don’t look at me like that, I’m American.” Okay, so what the fuck was the point of that then?
As you may have guessed by now, “6 Underground” is one of the most weirdly disjointed and sloppily edited major motion pictures since “Suicide Squad,” but unlike with David Ayer’s film, Bay didn’t have to deal with a rushed prost-production schedule or last-minute reshoots. Events will be referred to that we never see, our heroes will be in danger one second and fine the next with no explanation, and characters make seemingly out-of-character decisions with zero motivation.
For instance, during the opening 20-minute car chase, Franco will randomly go from wearing a cap, to not wearing it in the next shot, to wearing it again. Bullet holes will appear and disappear on the getaway car throughout, a bad guy who causes the team to crash after shooting up their windshield just mysteriously vanishes, while Franco is either terrified or a totally cool customer from scene to scene. At one point the film even slows down to clearly show a truck taking out the driver-side mirror, which reappears in the very next shot:
If nothing else though, the opening car chase almost serves as a test case to determine one’s ability to sit through the remaining hour and a half, and anyone who had a bad taste in their mouths from the total disregard for collateral damage exhibited by the heroes in Bay’s masterpiece “Bad Boys II” is going to feel like they ate a shit sandwich after watching “6 Underground.” For instance, early in the movie it’s treated as a joke that the group almost runs over a woman and her baby, which would be a lot less nerve-inducing if we hadn’t just seen Franco run over an innocent pedestrian:
The way that scene is edited, especially Franco’s slow-mo reaction, indicates that that is supposed to be a “laugh” moment as well, but seriously, our heroes just killed a guy! And when they are not actively killing or attempting run over nuns, babies, and puppies themselves, our crew is constantly taking part in chases and shootouts that result in cops and innocent people getting shot, crushed, or blown up. Honestly, it’s a bold move to have the heroes in your film constantly talking about making the world a better place, when they mainly seem to making a world full of widows and orphans.
However, once I saw the end of “6 Underground” I started to think that perhaps Bay is slyer than we think, and our protagonists aren’t actually supposed to be heroes. First of all, the insane amount of collateral damage inflicted by Reynolds and his team is justified in the name of deposing the evil dictator of Turgistan, who is shown in yet another flashback dropping chemical weapons on a refugee camp right when Reynolds is handing out relief supplies as part of a P.R. effort (the brief few moments here when Reynolds tries to act like a normal person and not his usual Jim Carreyesque overacting smug prick are among his least convincing to date).
Now overthrowing a genocidal Middle East dictator with an iron grip on his country would seem daunting for even someone with slightly less than a billion dollars, but fortunately for Reynolds the dictator Rovach has a super-nice brother named Murat who is being held in exile against his will. Let’s let Ryan explain the rest of his fool-proof plan: “The last thing we are gonna do is we’re gonna say goodbye to piece-of-shit dictator brother and hello to democracy-loving brother.”
(Also, for some reason they are planning to stage this coup on the “Day of the Dead,” and we’ll see the occasional title card reading something like “One day until Day of the Dead.” Why a coup in a Middle Eastern country absolutely has to take place during a Mexican holiday, other than for vague symbolic reasons, is yet another question you will not get an answer to in this film.)
Now you might think Bay’s prescription for peace in the Middle East – hope every insane fascist tyrant somehow has a normal peaceful brother you can swap in his place – is rather simplistic and unrealistic, but hey fuck you, it totally works! Reynolds and his team rescue Murat from captivity and highjack Turgistan’s state-run TV to broadcast an appeal by the nice brother to his countrymen, and honestly the only laugh I got in the film was the montage of people immediately taking to the streets after Murat has barely finished some boilerplate about “starting a revolution” and “taking back our country.”
Either way, Murat takes control of the government after appealing to the better nature of the military high command, and the evil Rovach is captured and dropped into the same refugee camp he had bombed previously, where he is chased down and killed by a mob of his former subjects. The triumphant tone the film takes indicates that we are supposed to come away believing that now that the “bad” leader is gone, peace and freedom will be the norm in Turgistan, and all the collateral damage caused by Reynolds and his bumbling crew was worth it since it did in fact make the world a “little less shitty.”
Yet it would be bizarre if that’s the message Bay intends, since he directed a different movie less than four years ago – “13 Hours” – that dealt with the disastrous real-life consequences of regime change in the Middle East, in this case the efforts by the United States and international partners to force out longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Bay’s earlier film even opens with news footage that is almost a carbon copy of scenes from the end of “6 Underground,” including a terrified former dictator being captured and beaten in broad daylight by his countrymen and happy protestors cheering in the streets:
Rather than leading to peace and freedom, Gaddafi’s death caused a power vacuum in Libya that turned the country into one of the most dangerous places in the world, leading to an attack on U.S. personnel the next year that killed an American ambassador and three others, and which likely would have killed more if not for the heroic efforts of the five CIA military contractors depicted in Bay’s film. While the juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy of “6 Underground” is completely at odds with the thoughtful and mature tone of “13 Hours,” maybe Bay is actually making a subtle commentary about the long-lasting damage that can be caused by good but naïve intentions, and that someday people similar to the men and women who fought off an all-night attack in Benghazi are going to have to deal with the mess caused by Reynolds and his band of “heroes.”
Or maybe it’s just that someone like Michael Bay really doesn’t give much thought to these things.