The thought goes through my head so often when I’m watching contemporary action genre that I almost get tired of writing it: I miss being able to enjoy middling action movies. Once upon a time you could grab just about any punchy shoot em up off the VHS shelf and be reasonably entertained by what you saw. Jackie Chan would make it art, but any old Seagal or Van Damme movie would do in a pinch.
Somewhere along the line that changed. These days even movies directed by stunt men seem to suffer from the same paradigmatic refusal to simply shoot the damned stunts, lucidly and unshakily, without atomizing into a million cuts. Wild plot hooks seem to substitute for competent execution — Nic Cage having to fight a Jaguar, Vin Diesel as a super-soldier with nanobots for blood, etc. Guys, please, save the creative flourishes for the brutal beatings. If there’s one thing modern action movies don’t need it’s more complicated plots.
To make a long story short, I did not expect a Netflix action movie starring Chris Hemsworth to be the antidote to all this.
Extraction, directed by Sam Hargrave (stunt coordinator on a handful of Marvel movies, plus The Accountant, Deadpool 2, Suicide Squad, and Atomic Blonde) has a refreshingly simple plot, and is basically the Cheesecake Factory menu of fight choreography — a little something for everyone. Want Thai-style kickboxing, complete with knees, leg kicks, and elbows? Got that. Jiu-jitsu, judo, hip tosses, grappling, and submission holds? Got that too. Knife play? Gunplay? Swordplay? Tank play? ‘Splosions? Car chases? Parkour? Check, check, check, and check.
Movie fights are like jokes: they’re best with a beginning, a middle, an end, and a memorable punch line. Extraction‘s action is like that, where every mini-battle is its own visual feast that tells a story. It’s slapstick, played more for gory shock value than laughs (though I chuckled in wonder plenty). Even better, it’s all shot lucidly and with a sense of spatial awareness, as if to maximize our potential enjoyment of its brilliant choreography — imagine that!
Oh right, the plot. So Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is your basic Martin Riggs type — good at fighting, handsomely blue-eyed, borderline suicidal from past family trauma, and Australian. Only in Rake’s case he’s a mercenary rather than a cop. A Bangladeshi drug lord has kidnapped his Indian drug lord rival’s son (Ovi, played by Rudhraksh Jaiswal). The Indian hires a private army to get the boy back and they tap Rake — drinking heavily in a rural Australian shack — to do the face-to-face part of the extraction work in Dhaka.
Extraction‘s settings are as exotic and far-flung for an American action movie as what you might see in Mission Impossible or the Bourne series, only with fewer frenetic jumps and more time to enjoy them. Ovi gets kidnapped from a cafe in Mumbai. From there we jump to the Kimberley in northwestern Australia and back to Dhaka for the bulk of the movie. “Interesting to look at” is a consideration so foundational to filmmaking that it’s often overlooked, but not in Extraction, which always reads expensive.
While not especially complicated, the story does have its unnecessary elements. It opens with a vignette from a climactic scene then jumps back in time, as if it didn’t trust its audience to go along for the ride without a frontloaded shoot-em-up. It didn’t need to: the scene of Ovi’s kidnapping immediately following it was more compelling anyway. Later, we learn the reason for Rake’s suicidal tendencies, which ends up being both unconvincing and unnecessary. He’s a hard-drinking mercenary looking for redemption, he doesn’t need a sob story about his kid.
Mostly though, Extraction‘s screenplay (by Joe Russo, adapting from Ande Parks) lets the natural dynamic between Hemsworth and Jaiswal play out, without trying to cram in too much unnecessary backstory. It does what an action movie should do, save its cleverest and most excessive touches for the fighting itself.
And my, isn’t it wonderful? The action is all shot fairly straightforwardly — no slow-mo, speed ramping, or funky camera angles — but with gloriously overdone brutality. In the first action scene, Hemsworth’s character leg kicks one bad guy practically in half, choke-slamming another into an end-over-end roll, killing a third with a coffee mug to the throat, and nearly decapitating a fourth with table’s edge. There’s gunplay, knife work, a lateral drop onto a cement floor, and an anaconda choke punctuated by an impaling (give the sound fx guy a raise) — all in a few minutes of screen time. I haven’t enjoyed action choreography this much in years, John Wick movies included. Fight choreography never gets the respect it deserves, but the artistry on display just in this one scene is borderline Buster Keaton-level physical genius.
When that much wit, panache, and dramatic timing goes into the fight scenes, who really cares about anything else? Extraction is constant, hyper-stylized murders and maimings, shot clearly and intelligently without too much unnecessary plot. It’s exactly what I’d been missing about action movies.