THOR, BUT SURVIVING
I’ve written a lot about toxic masculinity and how insecurity actively harms most male dominated action franchises today. There’s just something off-putting about watching big and burly men try and outflex one another without any sense of irony. So it’s both a pleasure and surprise to realize that during the past decade it’s Australian actor Chris Hemsworth who has emerged as the premier action star of our age. After impressing in his role as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — where he eschewed bravado for comedy with great results — Hemsworth now headlines his own big summer blockbuster. He doesn’t disappoint: in a film that often spins against the way it drives, Hemsworth emerges as smart, vulnerable and immensely likeable star. One who isn’t afraid to let others have a moment in the spotlight.
And now that much of the year has been decimated by the COVID19 pandemic, EXTRACTION remains the only big picture opening the summer season of 2020 as it premieres April 24.
The result is not just a solid thriller, but a gauntlet thrown down by Netflix that announces they’re primed and ready for a seat at the summer movie table.
The initial set up feels worryingly close to a 90s Steven Seagal Direct to Video film. Hemsworth plays a mercenary at the end of his line, who suffers from a serious case of Tragic Past Syndrome. As a result, he spends his days drinking and swimming in the Australian outback, before he’s called in for One Last Job by his employer. Pretty quickly Rake finds himself in the middle of Bangladesh, out to find a kidnapped boy called Ovi. Problem is, Ovi’s dad is a drug baron, and his kidnappers are a rival cartel who own the city. Granted, the writing isn’t going to win any awards for originality. But that’s hardly the point; in the end, this is a showcase for action directing and acting, both areas in which the film excels.
Written and produced by Joe and Anthony Russo (based on their graphic novel CIUDAD) and directed by Sam Hargrave, the pedigree behind EXTRACTION is bona fide. The Russo’s cut their teeth directing COMMUNITY, one of the finest comedy series to ever grace network television, while Hargrave is the stunt coordinator behind every major action film of the last decade. That level of skill is immediately visible on screen from the first fight onwards. The action is visceral and fun, and there are multiple beats I was surprised to learn aren’t digitally created. In this day and age physical stunt work continues to be a rare, unexpected treat, and EXTRACTION delivers those in spades.
It does take a dip in the second half, and yes; there’s some deeply troubling and questionable aspects to the story which are glossed over a little too happily. In a lesser movie both of these things would kill the momentum immediately, but Hemsworth carries the film through the muck with effortless charm. He’s surrounded by a talented cast of character actors, most noticeably Netflix alumni and resident king David Harbour, who swaggers in about halfway to steal every minute of screen time he has. Playing a down and out former mercenary, Harbour immediately sells the bitter and broken ex-soldier as someone that’s easy to both like and fear.
The chemistry between two is electrifying and it’s not hard to picture them as a great pair in a buddy action film. Hemsworth seems to relish playing a burnt out mercenary — the hilariously named Tyler Rake — with dogged John Wick energy, including some Die Hard-esque grumbling as a cherry on top. Harbour’s loopy dialog is made all the better by his implacable drawl.
The great Golshifteh Farahani (superb in Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON) plays Hemsworth’s boss and handler, displaying some unexpected and solid chops at carrying action. Randeep Hooda plays an extractor working for Ovi’s father, and it’s a shame that his part is left so shallow. (He and Hemsworth share one of the big showstoppers in a knife fight for the ages). Like Farahani, Hooda is a charismatic presence on screen. With the resources and talent available, I’d love for Netflix to produce more big budget content for these two.
Despite the great cast and action, EXTRACTION stumbles in a crucial area, one that will be hard for many to overlook. It is terminally tone deaf about its politics, and there’s a nagging feeling that a lot of its imperialist overtones could have been easily avoided. Set in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the film portrays both city and country as a crime infested hellhole; one where drug barons rule everything, including the military to the extent that they can close down the city at a moments notice. The only way out is through one of the bridges separating Dhaka from India, and we’re told this through some hamfisted dialog which is emphasized by random civilians shouting about how they “need to get away to India.” As people scurry to escape the hellish surroundings, child soldiers roam the streets in hopes of rising through the ranks of their self-made armies.
But in reality Dhaka is some 300 square kilometers wide and the economic and educational hub of Bangladesh. It has a conflicted and troubled past with India, and their border disputes are historically known. What it doesn’t have is any kind of bridged connections from the city into another country. Not that you’d know it from watching the film — most of it was shot in Thailand.
Why does this matter in a big, dumb action movie? Because the people involved are neither big nor dumb, at least not based on their previous works. The Avengers films have been inclusive dreams for people around the world, smartly building their worldview as a vision of hope and compassion. To say that EXTRACTION is vastly different would be an understatement. Children are killed left and right, and a scene involving Hemsworth encountering one of the child militias is played for laughs instead of the horror it deserves. There are hints abound that the film wants to deal with these heavier topics, but it can’t seem to decide which it wants to be: a loud summer film akin to Michael Bay (please no), or a thoughtful and introspective teardown of the genre like Michael Mann.
As a result, it’s kind of both, and a lot of neither. The lead character is called Tyler Rake, but there’s no fun to be found here. Not even when Hemsworth kills a sneering over the top baddie with an actual rake. There is no punchline or one-liner. Nothing to indicate that the film is in on the joke. But then when it’s faced with the real tough questions — like an intense scene where drug baron Amir Asif grooms a young soldier with twisted fatherly advice — the film shies away from anything even remotely complicated. To its credit, EXTRACTION is nowhere near as toxic or harmful as a Bay film, and for the most part makes for entirely passable and fun viewing.
But the fact remains that in the present world poverty porn and the White Savior Syndrome are both very real things, and even popcorn fare needs to factor that in. Even as EXTRACTION never falls for anything truly reprehensible, it muddles the big picture by allowing itself to be a pawn in politics that define an entire country for the worse.
Everything else is great.