I want to give a quick shoutout to two very important filmmakers – Michael Bay and the late Tony Scott. The former is consistently maligned by his critics, but his work wouldn’t be possible without the influence of the latter. Although they each have their own set of intricacies, both Scott and Bay helped mold the template of the kinetic action movie. The fingerprints of that visual aesthetic are all over Extraction, a deathly serious foray into action cinema that attempts to emulate the frenetic pace of its predecessors while improving modern film techniques.
It stars Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake, one of the best/worst names in action movie history. He’s a mercenary sent on a mission to rescue the kidnapped son of an Indian drug kingpin. But Rake has his own inner conflict – he’s a character right out of the Shane Black school of tortured action protagonists. He’s moody, stoic, reckless, and depressed. His apparent sadness, often hidden with a well-timed smile, is a result of a tragic backstory involving his family;
all he’s missing is a frantic rage to complete the comparisons to Martin Riggs.
One of Rake’s earliest scenes involves him jumping off a cliff, into a bank of water so he can… meditate? Rake’s characterization is as frustratingly unclear as it’s appropriately mysterious. The idea of him using calming exercises to curb his violent behavior is inconsistent and could have been explored more. But perhaps the filmmakers believe that time was better served to deliver action set pieces, to which Extraction delivers in spades. Comparisons can be made to the John Wick franchise and Upgrade (2018) in terms of how exciting and fluid the set pieces are. The action is not only well-choreographed but well shot.
The opening scene is awash with the aggressive orange tone usually found in a film by Bay or Scott. At times this look is beautiful, other times the film looks comically saturated. But at least it’s a distinctive look rather than the generic, over-exposed, daytime-soap quality lighting found in most Netflix productions. The cinematography and production design is impressive all around. Even when we’re away from the sun-soaked skyline of the city, the interior scenes still boast impressive architecture and a mood befitting that of cold, technologically muted angst. Overall, I would say this is the best looking Netflix film since Roma (2018). First-time director Sam Hargrave takes the visualization of the story seriously, not settling for basic coverage and lazy shot/reverse shot. It feels like the story matters because the visuals tell us it matters.
When the action finally heats up, the movie hits its stride. There’s a tracking shot during a car chase that’s one of the best action scenes in years. This tracking style, similar to the movement found in video game cutscenes, obscures our vision just enough for characters or objects to burst into the frame at just the right time, while the editing and camera movement makes you wonder how many takes were required to get these scenes just right. There’s knife fights, gun-fu, and at one point Rake beats up several children at one time – I mean, said children were trying to murder him but still not the best look. The fights in this movie are high octane, mountain-dew-fueled ride. But that leaves one to wonder why the rest of the film is so somber and devoid of fun.
The catch 22 of the entire film is that the care put into making sure the central story is taken seriously is also why at times the movie feels dull and stilted. Most of the characters engage in performative scowling rather than embodying interesting people. This is most apparent in the character Saju (Randeep Hooda). He’s meant to be the emotional heart of the story as the conflict threatens his family’s life. But he’s underwritten, acting simply as a brawny plot device that isn’t needed given Hemsworth’s presence. Perhaps that screentime could have been better served to feature more of Tyler’s partner, Nik (an excellent Golshifteh Farahani).
Most of the characters have a solemn backstory, and they rely on empathy to relate to the audience. But we would find these stories more engaging if the characters at the source of the trauma were worthwhile. Then there’s the film’s villain, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), who’s content to menacingly stare off into the distance because the screenwriters forgot to write him a character. I mention this because for as fun as the action is, you can’t have fight scenes for 120 straight minutes. For most of the runtime, the characters have to talk, and Extraction is far less interesting during these moments. There are some big scenes in the 3rd act that do not land nearly as well as they should due to a lack of care for the characters.
Extraction is a film that flirts with greatness. The action, editing, and tension are phenomenal – which isn’t surprising given Hargrave’s history as a stuntman. He understands the physics and psychology of onscreen violence on a level deeper than most filmmakers. This culminates in a thrilling 3rd act, and the film is punctuated by a final shot that is superb. I’m buying my Sam Hargrave stock now, and if he wants to be a premier action director then I will be in line for his next ten films. But I also want my over the top macho cinema to feature human beings, not robots.