David G. Hughes on Sam Hargrave’s ‘Extraction’ (2020)
Culture begins at the bottom. It spawns from the passions and vibrations of the street, from the downtrodden, the outcasts and the dispossessed with something on their mind and blood in their veins. Thereafter, as the trajectory goes, it’s latched onto, repackaged and sold, gradually losing its vitality as it becomes beholden to corporate interests and the pressures of unimaginative middle-class morality. It’s the story of cinema itself, even as professionally ambitious kids of wealthy stock attempt to pollute this truism, telling us that the narrative of the “suffering artist” is rote and retrograde, quite convenient to their advancement in a field we rightly regard as sacred. For who doesn’t want to be an artistic genius? Only in that grab at virtue, the new elite are, let’s say, extracting even the cathartic possibility of grace from suffering, which is to say the lifeblood of experience away from the artwork.
At this point, you might be able to tell where this is going and what my opinion is of the latest tent-pole title from Netflix, Extraction. For any would-be critic interested in defending the integrity of the arts (so few are nowadays), surely it’s our job to point out the pretenders and company men attempting to encroach on sacred land. It gives me no pleasure to say that I think I’ve caught an offender.
None of this is to suggest that Extraction isn’t highly enjoyable or delivered by the finest team of hardworking technicians. It’s well-oiled and operative, with a simple plot set-up coupled with complex logistics. It’s highly bombastic, moves quick, delivers set-pieces aplenty, and makes for solid Friday night entertainment. So why does it feel so completely devoid of nourishment? Now, we’re not talking about an absence of a “meaningful” story or sufficient “character development”, but an aesthetic soul.
It’s because for all of its clamorous marketing Extraction is a mostly unimaginative culmination of a noble creative tradition now tamed. It makes absolute sense that it be the algorithmically-obsessed Netflix who back a project taking its inspiration, down to the minutiae of camera movement, à la carte from lower-level, street-smart productions. Indeed, its most talked-about moment — a “long-take” action sequence that has the camera performing all sorts of gyrations and manoeuvers to follow the fight from moving vehicles to an apartment complex, off roofs and whatever else — is also its weakest and most telling aspect.
Aside from the fact that the sequence looks like garbage and irritates the eye, one can feel how self-consciously proud the film is for showcasing a camera float into a moving vehicle, despite the fact that The Raid 2 (2014) did it before, more creatively without digital assistance. Or how great it is that the camera follows the hero jump across a building rather than cut, even though The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) did it thirteen years ago to wonderful effect. One can also make cross-references to specific “gun-fun” choreography lifted from the John Wick franchise, which, let’s not forget, began as a low-tier passion project for all involved. And having consulted the press interviews, there’s been no suggestion of indebtedness to any of this prior virtuoso.
More so, since when is not cutting considered to be the ne plus ultra of the genre or, heck, even the medium? Anyone whose seen a John Woo movie knows that most of the pleasing rhythm is in the cut. Very few long-takes, especially the fake ones, have ever passed the test of what V.F. Perkins called “aesthetic suspense”, which is to say effectively pulled off an audacious stylistic choice wholly convincingly and without relapse into a moment of incredulity. In other words, they’re too self-aware, too self-obsessed, too distracting.
What this amounts to is technical oneupmanship, a sort of capitalist logic that because someone did something we do it more. Its the skill of technicians, computers and marketing men, not artists. Director Sam Hargrave has been doing stunt co-ordinator work on the sets of the biggest productions for years, and there can be no doubt his heart is in the right place, but even the stuntman-turned-director credential is lifted from the lower rung, against-the-odds achievements of Jesse V. Johnson and Chad Stahelski.
Having said all of that, if I were a teenage boy, Extraction might be the best movie I’d ever seen. Golshifteh Farahani harnessing a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher is a cinema of attractions at its finest, and Chris Hemsworth doesn’t scupper the opportunity. Alongside Blackhat (2015) and 12 Strong (2018), you get the feeling, if he had his druthers, the handsome star would almost exclusively prefer to hang up the hammer and get his hands dirty in physically demanding profilmic entertainment. The role of Tyler Rake is tailor-made for him as he forges a post-Marvel bailiwick, here as an Aussie thrill-seeker dogged by Thanatos, not Thanos.
He drinks his demons away, has blurry flashbacks to better times and, with no fucks given, dives into a chasm of water for some intrauterine meditation before setting off on a rich kid saving mission in the close-quarters of Dhaka, Bangladesh (which makes for an excellent location). Freud defined the death drive as “the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state” and this is what our self-destructive hero has.
But so does the movie, against it’s better nature. It’s taken the Eros of the fine action movie tradition and corporatised it into a stitched composite. This isn’t the pioneering work it seems to believe it is. Sure, there’s lots of carnage and killing, and you might even be fooled into believing that it’s the real deal, but Extraction is only ever, oddly, bloodless.
Extraction is available to watch on Netflix now.