“I don’t think we should be governing ourselves. What we need is a king, and every now and then if the king’s not doing a good job, we kill him.” – George Carlin
Here comes an unsurprising statement that my future obituarist will put as the subheading right after “widely beloved murderer of pineapple pizza eaters everywhere.” I love Michael Bay.
Oh, I don’t quite like Bay when he’s making robots (except the fourth one, strangely). Or when he’s reaching beyond himself trying to romanticize history (Pearl Harbor), win an Oscar (Armageddon), or copy Spielberg (Transformers & The Island). And I don’t love him in an ironic or reptilian sense either, though it is true that no one else in Hollywood can garbage smash like he can, and even some of his robot blockbusters can be enjoyed simply because of the number of helicopters and explosions featured in them. I love him as a sweeping teflon entertainer who can make the smallest settings feel galactic, and as someone who can translate that imagery not only into R-rated action (there ought to be a law preventing him from ever making a PG-13 movie again), but outright satire of the machismo and corrupt cultures of excess that plague real life. I love him as a kinetic filmmaker who makes productions out of exploding his production sets. Bay’s attitude also seems to be that Marie Curie had nothing on the guy who invented Coca Cola, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you watch his best films: The Rock, Bad Boys 2, and Pain and Gain.
I also love the way Michael Bay survives (even thrives off of, perhaps), the impotent shrieking of the critical intelligentsia that rails against his films. Every Bay release is accompanied by an avalanche of derision against him (and really, as my friend MovieBob explained, against the willing audiences that pack his box office) that ends up being just as overwhelming and insufferable as any of his actual films are at their worst. It’s as opportunistic and cynical as it is pathetic and desperate, and Bay deals with it far better than President Trump ever did.
None of this stated to be contrarian. You’ll never see me defend the filmmaking of Uwe Boll or Tommy Wiseau. Bay has made some awful pictures with lens flares, rapid editing, lore desecration, and shallow characters, but that doesn’t distinguish him from Peter Berg or J.J. Abrams. In fact, Abrams is the perfect point of contrast. Not only is he a critical darling for entirely superficial reasons; he has also tried to be Spielberg (and Richard Donner), per his Super 8 – a film where every single evocation of childlike wonder, curiosity, and adventure is undermined by its insipid alien mysteries that don’t have an ounce of meaning to them beyond the raw memory of how Spielberg once made them real and personal. Michael Bay may have made worse films than that, but he has never been so pretentious.
To take it a step further: both Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams feature in their biggest blockbusters many different shots where characters are breathlessly sprinting from one end of a room or street to another, shouting things that may or may not be important, with the camera rushing to keep up with them while noticing the presence of something else nearby too. In fact, that’s pretty much all that happens in them. But Michael Bay understands both the superficial and the essential in a kind of Jackson Pollockian way that Abrams never did. To put that another way – the best Michael Bay movies are about the very garbage he wants to smash and the smashing thereof. His films have never required the “mystery box,” nor have they been affected in any serious way by the studio marketing, franchise expectations, or audience interest beyond the spectacle itself. In that blockbuster sense, his films, and not Abrams’ directed films, are visually interesting.
6 Underground might be his purest.
The film is about a group of anonymous specialists blowing heads off, demolishing structures, and toppling regimes entirely as an act of global philanthropy without any government sanction or authorization. A small group of social misfits causing untold numbers of bystanders, passers by, officers, and anything that isn’t a dog to be pancaked, blown up, and thrown from safety while doing the needed work of fixing the bad things that democracies, in all their goodness, must necessarily tolerate; these are our heroes. We know this because they protect their families by faking their deaths, they protect one another, and they talk Shakespeare.
Everything in this film is on the level until it isn’t. Bayhem flourishes whenever the line between character and actor is razor thin – a characteristic so old fashioned that you can trace it back to the Buster Keaton era. The “ghosts,” as they are called here, are nameless and referred to only by number and subtitle: (1) One, The billionaire (Ryan Reynolds); (2) Two, CIA Spook (Mélanie Laurant); (3) Three, The Hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); (4) Four, The Skywalker (Ben Hardy); (5) Five, The Doctor (Adria Ajorna); (6) Six, The Driver (Dave Franco); and (7) Seven – The New Guy (Corey Hawkins). Given the number in the title, see if you can guess which one dies in the very beginning. Apart from One, each of them has no more than two notes to play because 6 Underground understands that even as they get a back story, you’re not actually here for them. You’re here to watch them destroy things, and all the movie cares to do is provide just enough justification for you to root for them. They themselves aren’t even interested in half the things the movie itself cares to show off.
The standout is Ryan Reynolds, who has spent the past decade making a brand and business out of self-referential comedy and such consistent presence, regardless of genre (or quality), that he transcends his characters with his stardom. He could be foreshadowing his own political or financial future. But even if he isn’t, he and Bay are a perfect match, and nowhere is that more apparent than when you see how stark his character difference is from Iron Man, even with everything else being virtually the same. When he recruits a new member to join his ghosts, it’s the most serious scene in the film. After that, it’s all jokes. He can make fun of literally everything happening in any given moment, yet still be earnest enough to believe every single word of conviction he preaches. Behold with that description: the ultimate Michael Bay character.
And true to his character, 6 Underground has a reference to a dozen different better movies and TV experiences that whiz by as quickly as everything else does. In the course of doing so, it achieves something The Expendables never really could; relevance. Those bloodless snoozers constantly had washed up actors feeding each other’s own catch phrases back to them with such persistent desperation that it was sad. But when no-named people do that at the clip they do here, in between turning brain matter into corn beef hash while one of them is high on nitrous oxide until sobered up by a bullet graze, its total identity transcends the sum of its parts.
The visuals, the stock characters with no feature whatsoever of their personalities coming from the script or anything than what the actors simply decided was appropriate the day they started shooting, and the basic premise of rich assassins with no accountability except among and to themselves fixing the world one dictator replacement at a time together culminate into an epic picture that could only work as a Michael Bay movie. Bay is breathless in his movement and editing, and it’s like when the Flash moves so fast that you can see the shape of the circle he’s drawing even though you feel like your eyes are moving almost as fast as he is. And here he makes the bad guys fanatical enough to the point of absurdity (a la The Raid) that it never stops being fun to watch their flesh turn into baby mush at the bottom of the sink, or their cars shredded and torn apart like they themselves are the crash test dummies in a much bigger world’s track. Anyone else would deliberately interrupt the flow in order to mine for narrative depth that isn’t there, or lean so hard into parody that it would be impossible to have any fun. Instead, Bay embraces every contradiction and makes art from it.
The older I get, the more I respect how much care it takes to make something appear care free.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)