Action. It’s right there in the film’s title.
The white-savior version of “Man on Fire,” in which a gruff mercenary (Chris Hemsworth) is hired to rescue a kidnapped rich kid from a dark-skinned drug lord, “Extraction” isn’t the smartest movie you’ll see during lockdown, but it’s liable to be the most kinetic — assuming you have Netflix, since it’s the service’s big tentpole of the season, a dumbed-down bit of blow-uppy distraction that’s every bit as entertaining as the equivalent pyrotechnic offering from a theatrical motion picture studio might have been.
“Extraction” marks the feature directing debut of “Avengers: Endgame” second unit director Sam Hargrave, whom producers Joe and Anthony Russo hand-picked to helm the project, based on their idea, an unproduced script that they’d earlier adapted into graphic-novel form as “Ciudad.” It’s the Russo Brothers’ name that appears above the title on posters (not that many people are seeing those at the moment) and, of course, the stubbly “Thor” star’s likeness that can be seen crouching/praying/napping in the key art.
Now, I know I’m in the minority here, but I hated “Avengers: Endgame.” Specifically, the end of “Avengers: Endgame.” Two years later, the coronavirus pandemic makes it feel like we’re living in the interval between “the Snap” — the two-parter’s notorious cliffhanger, which wiped out half of all life in the universe — and the next installment, knowing that this time, some time-travel gimmick can’t save us. Instead, nearly a year to the day after “Endgame,” it’s startling to think that the biggest new movie being released is this one, a much leaner endeavor from the same creative team.
Actually, Hargrave also choreographed the fight scenes on David Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde” — another showcase from a stunt maven turned director — and it’s safe to assume that’s where he got the idea for “Extraction’s” big set-piece: a spectacular 11½-minute single-shot action scene that seems to be the film’s entire raison d’être.
In “Atomic Blonde,” Charlize Theron fought her way up and down a stairwell, destroying a grubby Berlin apartment before bursting out into the street and speeding off in a car, all in what was carefully designed to look like a single, uninterrupted plan sequence. Here, Hargrave and Hemsworth try to improve upon that accomplishment. They can’t, but the attempt is undeniably impressive all the same, as the camera does seemingly impossible tricks as it tracks a high-speed chase through Dhaka, where a daredevil named Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) undertakes what seems like a suicide mission.
Rake’s one of those enigmatic loners we often meet in such movies, his backstory reduced to a few fleeting glimpses of a dead son. Still, tortured and handsome is about as much as the genre often gives us. If anything, it’s surprising to see slightly more time devoted to the personal lives of the various stock characters Rake encounters. This is one of those movies where Hemsworth stands out as the only white person for the first hour of the film, around which point David Harbour shows up for a few scenes. Hargrave allows his star to use his Australian accent and doesn’t oblige the people of color to speak English, even if they’re not always playing their own nationality.
“You’re hoping if you spin the chamber enough times, you’re gonna catch a bullet,” offers his handler (Golshifteh Farahani) by way of analysis early on. Not terribly insightful, considering we’ve just seen Rake (a) take what looks like a lethal bullet in a bloody flash-forward and (b) jump off a cliff so high even Thor would’ve thought twice about taking the plunge. Iranian actor Farahani is one of world cinema’s most striking actors, and here, she has nothing to do for better part of two hours but deliver exposition, such as this line to describe the politics of the assignment: “Biggest drug lord in India versus biggest drug lord in Bangladesh.” And yet, she finds her way into the field before the show’s over, firing the two most important shots of the movie, and taking down a helicopter via rocket launcher for good measure.
As for Rake, well, he’s just a locomotive with nothing left to lose, barreling his way through incredibly outmatched situations in berserker mode. His adversaries may outnumber him, but he proves to be pretty creative about using them against one another. Rake can grab a gangster by the arm, twist it in a direction the joint wasn’t meant to bend and fire the weapon into the skull of an oncoming assailant. Or, he might pick up a soldier and spin his body around so fast that it snaps the neck of another.
It shouldn’t surprise that Hargrave, who’s something of a fight specialist, has some flashy moves up his sleeve. Working closely with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (the “Drive” DP, who’s come a long way since “Latino,” a movie awfully similar to the “Ciudad” graphic novel), Hargrave blocks and shoots the altercations in such a way that audiences can quickly read what’s happening. Rake fights dirty, but the coverage is clean, emphasizing what an efficient improviser he is in the moment.
His mission is to locate, liberate and return alive Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the son of the aforementioned Indian drug lord, from the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, where he’s being held for ransom by Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), a man so powerful he has the local military at his disposal. That would be tough enough if the man who’d hired him (Pankaj Tripathi) hadn’t ordered his own security chief, Saju (Randeep Hooda), to swoop in and steal Ovi from his rescuers the moment he’s been liberated. That’s where Hargrave chooses to show off, initiating the single-shot set-piece meant to up the ante on this particular technique.
It’s worth noting that Kathryn Bigelow was among the early pioneers of this action-scene-as-oner craze a quarter-century ago with “Strange Days,” even if it’s since become the obsession of a certain kind of male director, looking either for Oscars (like Cuarón, Iñárritu and Mendes) or the admiration of cinephiles and fellow film professionals (as in “Atomic Blonde” and “John Wick 3”). Other than calling attention to itself, it’s not entirely clear why this approach — which mirrors the style of first-person-shooter games — has become so popular. If anything, it’s bound to make movies from this period look dated the instant the fad blows over.
Joe Russo’s script is structured much like a game as well, serving up intimidating “level bosses” — a teenage street hood with a vengeance, a corrupt general who happens to be the country’s best sniper — that Rake must defeat every so often before advancing in his quest, suddenly complicated by the fact that Asif has mobilized the military to shut down the city (Thailand bridges and streets double for Dhaka) and take out both Rake and his charge.
The Russos’ original graphic novel, “Ciudad,” took place on a different continent entirely, and the fact they could relocate it from South America to South Asia suggests how little attention they’ve put into studying either place. It’s the action that matters most to them, so check your brain going in. But if the only exercise you’re getting is from the couch to the kitchen these days, it’s liable to get your heart racing just a little, and that’s not a bad thing.