Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in Extraction on Netflix.

Stunning Action, Garbled Heart — “Extraction”

An action movie tells its story through the overcoming of obstacles – that usually translates into the killing of other humans. It doesn’t stop us from watching. The violence itself can be cathartic. A few action movies get to have their cake and eat it, too. They thrill us with their violence while also pointing out how violent cycles are reinforced. This veers into some meta and self-critical territory. After all, by thrilling in an action movie like “Extraction”, we’re partaking in the violence ourselves.

Does having an outlet allow it to escape, or by subscribing to the excitement of it, are we also reinforcing its lessons? Probably a bit of both. Yet action movies rarely find a place to exist within this. It’s easier and often more fulfilling of our expectations to just see the action unfold. The tropes and cliches within these movies help give them structure, but we rarely examine them.

“Extraction” does a bit of this through its writing and Chris Hemsworth’s leading performance. His charm and comedic timing would seem not to come into play for a role as dramatic and dour as this one. Tyler Rake is a mercenary who takes risky assignments in the hope he’ll die on one of them. He still pursues them responsibly, with training, a tactical mind, and a sense of self-preservation. His suicidal desires form one of those structural cliches, a plot shortcut to communicate to audiences a movie’s desperate tone – except “Extraction” pushes this a little bit further at intervals throughout the movie.

The assignment he takes is to find a kidnapped boy in Bangladesh. The boy, Ovi, is the son of India’s biggest drug dealer. The kidnappers work for Bangladesh’s biggest drug dealer. A positive view of South Asian culture this isn’t. Of course, what starts as a relatively smooth operation soon goes off the rails. Rake and Ovi find themselves trapped in the city, being chased by both gangs and a corrupt police force.

First, the good: “Extraction” regularly presents dialogue, sequences, and visual motifs of how cycles of violence are reborn and perpetuated. It doesn’t exactly deep dive into it; but these things are bubbling near the surface every time the action relents for a moment. Hemsworth has the ability (and not one I would have guessed at) to use his smile and charm in extremely subtle ways here. I’m confident he’s one of the best comedic actors working, but what it’s sometimes easy to forget is how much those same skills can lend themselves to drama. What we see in Rake is someone who’s depressed and performs brief moments of being OK for the people around him. This is only needed in a few scenes, but it’s enough for Hemsworth to establish a surprisingly full character who feels real. He does a lot with little room for it, and that’s to Hemsworth’s credit. Nothing in what the film pursues here is revolutionary or turns the tropes it uses on their heads, but what is here is effective in making the characters we follow feel substantial.

The action scenes are the standout here. They’re the reason for coming, and they can range from good to exquisite. Expect quick, brutal fistfights, and elongated, roving shootouts. “Extraction” is anchored on a 12-minute one-take in the middle of the movie. What starts as a car chase ranges through fistfights, a tenement foot chase, rooftop parkour, and a street fight, all without a single apparent edit. It’s all one camera shot. Of course, a number of digital edits are cleverly hidden throughout, but the effect is that of one long, unbroken camera shot. The sense of it is audacious.

There’s a lot owed in this kind of filmmaking to Indonesian and Thai action filmmaking. The two “Raid” movies and Kim Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Headshot” come to mind throughout “Extraction”. While tonally very different, there’s also a lot owed to how Thai films like “The Protector” and “Chocolate” developed a sense of action cinema language that could veer from one-take insurance nightmares to rapid-edit broken bone ballets in the space of a scene.

That said, those films have a sense of coming from their own cultures. Even when Welshman Gareth Evans was directing “The Raid” films, the majority of those involved were Indonesian and there was a sense of care placed into its criticisms of government corruption. The franchise presented a disturbing and demented hyper-reality built around the manipulation and abuse of those in poverty at the hands of those with money and power. Even the most lowly henchperson might deserve a cinematic moment of pain and tragedy at their loss, at an alternate story suggested and now disappeared. There were at times operatic moments of loss in those films, particularly in the second one, “The Raid 2: Berandal”. “Extraction” lacks any of this. The people who live in Bangladesh in this film exist either to be shot or to run away and not be seen.

“Headshot”, another Iko Uwais starrer, is brutally violent, realistic enough in physical trauma that it began to go far past its sense of violence as entertainment. While an inherently problematic damsel-in-distress movie, it also might be the best of these ever made, posing a sickening level of violence and cycles of repetition against choices of non-violence and escaping those cycles. It had a point, and nothing was going to stop it from making that point.

In Thai cinema, “The Protector” and “Chocolate” (and “Ong-Bak”, “Raging Phoenix”, “The Kick”, the list goes on) are all about protecting something – a loved one, a sacred artifact, a disappearing culture. They’re also squarely some of the most bluntly anti-colonialist popular cinema out there. They’re films about sacrifice.

“Extraction” poses Tyler Rake as having lost his own son. Even after the mission’s a wash, he decides to protect Ovi and get them both out of the city – but it’s not a sacrifice. It’s a coping mechanism. Ovi’s purpose is chiefly to offer Rake redemption – both in his own eyes and ours. How is Rake going to get this Indian boy out of Bangladesh? By killing a lot of Bangladeshis. The film never makes anything more out of this, and it’s an idiotic and cowardly choice to cover the faces of nearly all the Bangladeshi police. By having no face, they seem inhuman, in a film built from disposing of them as if their humanity is inconsequential.

This lacks a certain consistency, and responsibilities both to viewers to its own characters. If Rake is an anti-hero, let him be one. If he’s telling Ovi that he’s not a hero and that he’s done bad things, too, I’m going to believe him. So let us see it, warts and all. Don’t just tell the audience that and expect us to disbelieve it because Chris Hemsworth is playing him. If you’re going to tell us he does bad things, then don’t pretend this isn’t in certain ways one of them.

One of the most overlooked elements of “The Raid” movies is that they afforded a heartbreaking humanity to even the most random, disposable henchpeople. They weren’t always bad people, they were often just people trying to live, who took a paycheck from the corrupt employer our protagonist was fighting instead of the corrupt employer our protagonist took his paycheck from. That element of those films stunned. It gave them gravitas that most action films don’t even think about.

And while yes, “Extraction” is a successfully built action movie with terrific action scenes, it’s also one that wants to be more. It wants to have David Harbour monologue about moments of innocence lost minutes before we witness one. It wants to have Chris Hemsworth attempt to talk about PTSD and violence as a coward’s choice in between the audience going, “Wow, look at that awesome violence”. It wants to show how embarrassment helps draft a young man into the thrall of a drug lord.

That it never follows through enough on these doesn’t stop me from enjoying the action scenes, but it does undermine the movie as a whole. It makes me wish “Extraction” had explored the humanity it wants to discuss more. It makes me wish the film remembered that others beyond the one white dude also possess that humanity. When it does so, it’s well written and well acted, but without more of it, it lacks the supporting infrastructure to stand. The action becomes good action instead of something that exists as amazing action and commentary that each elevate the other.

And while it may be unfair to compare “Extraction” to some of Southeast Asia’s best films, if you want to take up that cinematic language and use it, you’ve got to be compared to it, too. Those cinematic evolutions serve a purpose, and that purpose is very often to fight colonialism, imperialism, and hyper-capitalism. To simply adapt that cinematic language shorn of its meanings and stripped of the reasons it exists fails to adapt that cinematic language at all.

This might all sound like I dislike “Extraction”. I did enjoy it. I’d like to see it again at some point. Hemsworth is particularly good. The action and technical elements are sometimes a marvel. And while it may be damning with faint praise, I also have to recognize that most action movies have very similar problems. Yet that doesn’t change that “Extraction” is deeply problematic and somewhat emptier than the performances within it deserve. “Extraction” is a really good diorama for action movie violence, but it lacks depth and breadth that could have made it more – a more that it seems fleetingly interested in exploring.

“Extraction” wants to have its cake and eat it, too. It wants to be an action movie that also examines cycles of violence. It gets a few steps in the right direction. It could have gone much further without sacrificing its action elements – and perhaps even elevating them. It only gets halfway there because it ultimately isn’t about corruption, or PTSD, or preserving an endangered culture. It misuses the cinematic art of Southeast Asian action because it ditches what that cinema was developed to address in order to focus on a much more Western concept of everything revolving around the protagonist.

In the end, only one character really exists or matters in this, and that’s Rake. Ovi exists to be saved as a fill-in for Rake’s lost son, and for his redemption in the eyes of the audience. Golshifteh Farahani’s Nik Khan, who’s Rake’s handler, exists essentially to worry about him. Bangladeshis in the film exist essentially to commit atrocities, sneer, be corrupt, or get shot.

“Extraction” takes so much of what makes Southeast Asian action cinema profound, but replaces the movie DNA that makes it so revolutionary in the first place with a Western conceit that doesn’t fit or serve it. The technical elements of both are there. The deeper meanings of both are there. The only problem is that those technical elements serve the deeper intent of the film, and “Extraction” is trying to fuse a Western character conceit that Southeast Asian action developed in part around criticizing and opposing.

It carves out a core meaning of Southeast Asian action cinema in order to supplant it with a storytelling focus this action cinema grew and developed around rejecting. No matter how good everything else in “Extraction” is, it’s build around this core inconsistency. That fundamental fracture splinters throughout what they build on top of it – something that may be a problematic fave, but is ultimately not anywhere near what it could have been and what it momentarily wants to be.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Extraction” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Golshifteh Farahani plays Nik Khan. Neha Mahajan plays Neysa.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No. Rayna Campbell is also listed, and may’ve been part of Nik Khan’s handling team, but if she spoke, it was only a line or two. Nik Khan and Neysa never meet.

3. About something other than a man?

Nope. Since the women never meet, they can’t really talk, let alone about anything other than Rake (Hemsworth). Again, Rayna Campbell’s character may’ve had a line or two that I can’t remember, but in the spirit of the questions, two and three should be understood as “No” answers.

The most that can be said about the representation of women in this movie is that Farahani has some badass moments as Nik Khan. She’s Rake’s handler, and she engages in several modes of combat at one point in the film. Nonetheless, her primary role in “Extraction” is to revolve around Rake and worry about him. It’s faintly suggested in that amorphously referenced kind of way that they may have been romantically involved at one point or other.

Neysa is the wife of the Indian gangster’s head henchman, and exists to have her life threatened if he doesn’t get Ovi back.

This film flunks this test in specifics and in spirit.

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