6UNDERGROUND. More than six years ago, I reviewed Pain & Gain (2013) and, in so doing, established that I will not, whether out of actual enjoyment or simple contrarianism, participate in the popular wholesale condemnation of Michael Bay movies. I find much of his work arch and unenjoyable, but there are simple pleasures in what he does and one must admit his style is unmistakable and, maybe 25 years ago, actually pretty innovative. He is a technician of cinema who shamelessly makes movies for teenage boys; most of the time he's rather good at it. The trouble starts when Bay tries to change lanes and make something more mature. His narrative tone-deafness hobbled Pain & Gain, which romped along gleefully even as the story turned bleak and disturbing.
6 Underground suffers from a similar disconnect, trying to be a large-scale action comedy and a message movie without quite being either one. It is noteworthy, though, for entirely non-artistic reasons: With a reported budget of $150 million, 6 Underground marks Netflix's continuing progression toward becoming the 800-pound gorilla of contemporary American movie making. Like The Irishman, this release would have seemed impossible (or at least highly unlikely) just two years ago, when the company broke the bank with the middling, misguided, rather poorly received sci-fi hodge-podge of Bright (2017), with a budget roughly half to two-thirds of either of the two mentioned above. So it's significant, if not all that good, even measured only against the rest of the Bay canon.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, lately of Deadpool acclaim, 6 Underground takes a run at franchise building by imagining a world in which a handsome, eccentric billionaire (Ryan Reynolds) can fake his own death and secretly build an elite tactical unit (the titular six) with a do-gooder global agenda. No mention of where he acquired the skills required for such work or how, in the age of social media, a billionaire who looks like Ryan Reynolds can gallivant around the globe shooting bad guys in broad daylight without being recognized. But we can move past that, right? But not really because the movie's timeline and execution are just as muddled as the quasi-reality it inhabits. Reynolds' character, who insists on only being called One (so as not to build attachments, since trying to save the world together certainly won't do that), has a precipitous change of heart when he witnesses the gassing of refugees by their own government in the unfortunately named imaginary nation of Turgistan.
Catalyzed, he abandons his wanton, selfish ways and sets a plan in motion to recruit five other elite operators and eventually overthrow Rovach Alimov (Lior Raz) Turgistan's cartoonishly despotic ruler. The team, for some reason, is comprised of a French former CIA agent (Mélanie Laurent), a Mexican hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a British free-runner (Ben Hardy), a doctor of dubious origin (Adria Arjona) and a driver (Dave Franco) who doesn't seem particularly proficient behind the wheel. They're all numbered rather than named, of course, which gets slightly confusing when one of them is replaced by a former Delta sniper (Corey Hawkins), who is subsequently assigned the handle Seven.
It's a fun enough premise, kind of a comic book-y creation of a world, and that's all well and good. But Bay handles the material as if it's funny and deadly serious at the same time, and it just isn't. The timeline of the movie is absolutely bananas, hurtling needlessly back and forth across a four-year period so abruptly one doesn't even feel compelled to try and keep up. And the action, ostensibly Bay's strong suit, while inarguably well-choreographed and executed by the stunt teams, comes off unexciting onscreen. There's no reason a car chase through Florence, replete with bodies flying through the air, should be dull, and yet ... R. 127M. NETFLIX.
RICHARD JEWELL. Clint Eastwood's recent track record is a little, shall we say, spotty but for someone knocking on the door of 90 years old, the guy stays pretty nimble. His latest, which apparently isn't enjoying much box office success, still serves, despite its narrative trouble-spots, as a fine example of what Eastwood as director does best.
Based on the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the aftermath thereof, Richard Jewell focuses on the eponymous security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) initially hailed as a hero and then tried in the court of public opinion when he becomes the focus of the FBI's investigation of the incident. Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), an attorney who has all but hung up the spurs of social justice, comes to Jewell's aid, waging a pitched battle against both the bureau, represented by wrong-headed agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), and the over-zealous news media, embodied by Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).
Richard Jewell, written by Billy Ray, takes some troubling liberties with the events and people upon which it is based, the most controversial being the depiction of Scruggs sleeping with a source for information, an invention her surviving family and colleagues at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have denounced. But judging it as a work of fiction, I have to say it is a resounding success. It's economically shot and cut, both trademarks of Eastwood's, and the performances are a veritable master class on acting for the screen. Rockwell and Kathy Bates, as Jewell's mother, both give dynamic, indelible performances. But the movie really belongs to Hauser and should mark his arrival as an actor of merit. He carries it squarely on his shoulders with a fearless portrayal of a man who, while misguided in his worship of law enforcement and perhaps too optimistic for his own good, only wants to do the right thing. R. 131M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
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BOMBSHELL. Charlize Theron makes a terrifying transformation into Megyn Kelly for a drama about Roger Ailes' gross sexual harassment at a network that continues to be — spoiler! — awful. Also starring Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie. R. 108M. BROADWAY.
CATS. Furries have their moment with the musical catnip fever dream T.S. Eliot probably deserves. Starring Taylor Swift, Idris Elba and more stars than you can shake a CG tail at. PG. 110M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). An angel gets his wings. NR. 130M. BROADWAY.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. Wrapping up the Skywalker storyline with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and Billy Dee Williams. Please respect my privacy during this difficult time. PG. 141M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
BLACK CHRISTMAS. Holiday college slasher with sorority girls arming up against creepy hooded baddies. Starring Imogen Poots and Cary Elwes. PG13. 92M. BROADWAY.
FROZEN 2. Elsa and Anna return for more snowbound sisterly adventure and to put that song back in your head. PG. 104M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
HONEY BOY. A drama about a young actor (Lucas Hedges) in freefall looking back on his childhood and relationship with his father (Shia LaBoeuf). R. 94M. MINOR.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are literally back in the game, which is glitching. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
KNIVES OUT. Director Rian Johnson's tightly controlled whodunnit both pays homage to and raises the stakes of classic mystery with a stellar cast. Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA.
LINDA RONSTADT: THE SOUND OF MY VOICE. Documentary about the iconic singer. With Bonnie Raitt and Dolly Parton, so go and be blessed. PG13. 95M. MINIPLEX.
REDOUBT. Matthew Barney experiments with movement as language on a hunt in the mountains of Idaho. NR. 134M. MINIPLEX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill