Netflix has spent the last year or two establishing itself as a destination for big-name filmmakers with ambitious projects. If Martin Scorsese needs extra millions to invest in de-aging effects for a 210-minute crime epic or the Coen brothers want to make an eclectic Western anthology, Netflix is there, cash in hand (at least for now). Despite the company’s reach, it’s still surprising that Michael Bay apparently counts himself among these filmmakers, yearning to shed those traditional big-studio shackles. Bay is one of the most commercially successful directors in the world, capable of commanding massive budgets and downright stupid levels of spectacle. Yet his new Netflix action movie, 6 Underground, has an opening car chase so long, loud, brightly colored, and context-free that it feels like Bay is blowing off a lot of steam by doing hundreds of donuts on Netflix’s front lawn. Finally, a boys’ night out after a long career of boys’ nights out!
To be fair, the majority of Bay’s past decade has been spent on Transformers movies. Though that series doesn’t lack for bent metal or flaming wrecks, there’s something back-to-basics about a Bay sequence that features zero collapsing buildings or interplanetary warfare, just a sports car filled with wisecracking mercenaries—at least for five or 10 minutes. Soon enough, Bay gets impatient with the basics and needs to start indulging his penchant for slasher-movie kills, splattering bad guys’ brains across windshields before it’s clear who the bad guys actually are. (The jackhammering yammer of screamed dialogue is not helpful in this regard.) There’s even a dash of late-period Tony Scott experimentalism to the sequence, and not just because the sports car in question is bright green. Bay cuts so abstractly within the car that team members Ryan Reynolds, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, and Adria Arjona could be spread out among two or three different vehicles.
Eventually, and through a series of sometimes convoluted flashbacks that just about finish laying out the movie’s premise around the 75-minute mark, it’s revealed what this team actually is: a bunch of “ghosts,” recruited by a billionaire who calls himself One (Reynolds) and numbers his new pals accordingly—after faking their deaths and erasing their identities, of course. Funded by One’s vast wealth, the six-person team has specialties they like to yell out during moments of tension (“I’m conducting surgery!” Arjona’s character screams during that endless car chase, in between shooting guns out the window) and travels the globe foiling evil dictators and the like. One has basically bought himself his own private Mission: Impossible, and Bay has, too, a possible franchise that he can remold in his own image. One’s disgust for the government and his bullying self-aggrandizement disguised as joshing humor are basically the subtext of every Bay movie made flesh. “I will never tell you to not pull that trigger,” he tells his newest recruit (Corey Hawkins), combining poor management and poor grammar into a single pithy phrase.
Theoretically, the presence of Reynolds and his Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick should, at minimum, improve the quality of hacky pop culture references made on the team’s globetrotting adventures. The writers may well be responsible for the scene where Three (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) quotes movies at random while rescuing a dictator’s imprisoned brother, but the nonsensical, unfunny execution is pure Bay, a filmmaker who only really understands laughing if it’s accompanied by pointing. Yet as variously sour and lazy as 6 Underground’s version of camaraderie can be, some of its missions have flashes of weird visual or aural wit, like a siege that uses a weaponized version of the THX tone, or a crazy super-magnet that sends the contents of a room slamming back and forth between walls. Another team member (Ben Hardy) is a one-man parkour revival, and if Bay frequently seems to be making the biggest, craziest action movie of 2014, he’s nonetheless ingenious at combining the smaller scale of athletic running and jumping with the skyscraping scale of his usual mega-productions. His rich color palettes are always a pleasure, even when they’re used to brighten up a movie with more extended middle fingers than a school bus full of 12-year-olds.
After a while, those middle fingers start to feel like they’re aimed at the audience. As it fills in bits of backstory for its team members, 6 Underground lingers on One, and his pre-ghost career as a brilliant inventor and generous philanthropist. The problem was that this insanely rich and successful man was not allowed to do enough for the world, and though Bay offers lip service dismissal of an unnamed president who can’t spell, it’s more than a little creepy to see someone openly fantasizing about a hero wealthy enough to take the law into his own hands.
If the movie’s technocratic flirtations with fascism are more on the oblivious side (and that’s a major “if”), 6 Underground still plays like a treatise on Bay’s self-image as a leader of intrepid film shoots, with Reynolds standing in as the pitilessly unpleasant boss with a heart of gold (which he can afford because, to be clear, he is very, very rich). Between the movie’s subtext and its new-digital-world distributor, Bay seems to be communicating the frustration of constraint, but why? What has he been barred from doing? It’s not as if Netflix actually affords him new freedoms. Most of his blatantly antisocial tendencies here—his fetish for throwing bodies under car wheels; his treatment of sex as mercenary and transactional; his contempt for normal, non-gun-toting humans—are recycled from previous movies. What he seems to be chasing is the feeling of freedom, the windswept open-skies exhilaration of a man who has everything. But he’s still just doing donuts, hoping all those whiplash turns from nihilism to macho sentiment awaken something inside him.