Image courtesy of indiewire.com
This article contains spoilers, which is impressive considering the fact that there have been porn films with more in-depth plots than the one screenwriter Joe Russo rustled up here.
Extraction fell onto the cliche tree and hit every branch on the way down. We are treated to gang lords living in harem-filled palaces, old war buddies fulfilling favours and the kind of surface-level moralising one could find in some of the more creatively bankrupt entries from the Call of Duty franchise. And that doesn’t even cover our protagonist, Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth), who not only sounds like but is also a divorced veteran who lost his son to cancer while he was voluntarily doing a third tour in Iraq. Now working as the edgiest mercenary in Australia, he is hired to retrieve Ovi Mahajan Jr., the teenage son of the biggest drug lord in India – Ovi Mahajan Sr. – who has been taken as hostage by rival drug lord Amir Asif. Mahajan Sr’s right-hand man Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) likewise embarks on a mission to save Ovi after being told his family will die should he fail to do so, fighting with Rake over custody of Ovi with skills and a purpose that make one wonder why he isn’t simply the protagonist instead.
I knew the film was in trouble from the very start, as it opens in media res with a battle-wounded Hemsworth struggling his way across a bridge, before throwing the audience back to ‘two days previously.’ Non-linear narratives done right can be a powerful tool for filmmakers, allowing them to subvert audience expectation or build suspense as the plot progresses to the end with which it started. Equally, done badly they plunge films into the realm of music videos and student films, red flags for a desperate attempt by the screenwriter to make tawdry plots more interesting, or imbue them with some kind of deeper meaning with little to no effort on their part. Extraction is the poster-child for the latter. The music video comparison proves apt throughout, especially in regards to the main antagonist Asif, portrayed by Priyanshu Painyuli. Surrounded by goons at all times, he is shot through a series of cutaways that look like they’re lifted straight from a VEVO video. Confusingly, he never shares screentime, nor even directly interacts, with any of the other characters in the film. The closest he gets is watching Hemsworth’s crawl along the bridge at the end through binoculars, from about a mile away (and still framed and color-graded like he’s in a music video, in direct juxtaposition of the shots of Hemsworth). You could not get away with this in an action parody.
Many articles have been written about the 12-minute action shot cleverly filmed and edited to appear as one sequence that occurs about halfway through. There’s no denying its effectiveness, as I found myself holding my breath for almost the entirety of its runtime, having been firmly drawn in by the technical prowess on display. Credit where credit is due, Sam Hargrave is an extremely competent action director. This is apparent from the entertaining results he produced as stunt coordinator for some of Marvel’s biggest films, including Captain America: Civil War and Avengers Endgame, but unshackled from the sanitizing PG-13 grip of Disney, Hargrave can show his full potential through thrillingly brutal action sequences.
I seriously wonder, however, if Netflix were shown the storyboards for this sequence and greenlit the film based solely on that; certainly, nothing else in the film is as well-conceived, and even the fights that follow it pale in comparison. The script appears to have been structured around getting characters to the location in which the sequence could occur, and after it is done with takes a dive so great in quality that one is left reeling. After beating up a gang of street children, Rake calls in the debt of one of his old friends, who jarringly turns out to be played by David Harbour. Who is he? Why is he in Dhaka just a short drive away from the protagonist, and what exactly is his relationship to Rake? The napkin on which Russo sketched out the plot does not appear to have been large enough for the inclusion of such details. His arrival does give our heroes a chance to stop running and lie low for a while, which turns out to be just long enough for Rake to talk to Ovi about his dead kid and cry - Hemsworth presumably providing real tears in response to the poor quality of dialogue - before the action picks up once more.
For the final third of the film, Rake drops gang-members, police and military by the dozen in an all-out street war that would make Michael Bay cringe. Asif’s influence as Bangladesh’s biggest drug lord provides tension for the early fight scenes, as the characters have to contend with the fact that anyone they encounter, even police, could be on his payroll. By the end of the film, I guess the audience is supposed to believe that pretty much everyone in Dhaka either turns a blind eye to Asif, or actively serves him, as Rake and Rav face wave after wave of cops and troops, and have to fend off not only RPGs but armoured vehicles and finally a helicopter. At this point, the film is working against itself in terms of believability, trying too hard to be grounded and gritty for the audience to overlook the ludicrous scale of the events onscreen. The irritatingly ambiguous ending adds to this tonal confusion, an attempt at adding mystery or intelligence to the plot but instead highlighting how it lacks either of the two.
If you’re looking for a great action film with a simple plot, watch John Wick or The Raid. The two are great examples of how to approach the tone of action for modern audiences, the latter providing stunning sequences grounded in super-violent realism, and the former revelling in progressively more farcical but nonetheless enjoyable action escapism. In its inability to get a grip on scope, Extraction fails to meet either of these expectations. Sam Hargrave would be an invaluable addition to any action film’s stunt team, and armed with a script that included things like character motivation and an actual plot structure, he could do great things. Until then, I recommend audiences look elsewhere for a fighting fix: the brief moments in which Extraction is truly great are not worth braving the slog that makes up the majority of its runtime, and will no doubt find their way onto YouTube in enjoyably short format before too long.