Tag Archives: The Raid

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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Special Edition Trailers of the Week — Aussie Rules

by Gabriel Valdez

There were a few fantastic trailers from Australia and New Zealand this week that I didn’t want to get lost in our regular edition, especially because this next film just became my most anticipated:

Trailer #2

Here’s the thing about Predestination. It’s based on a Robert Heinlein short story about a time traveler who descends from himself…by impregnating himself before a sex change.

The trailer doesn’t breathe a word of this, but if you know the material, you can see it strongly hinted. Perhaps the film just uses the Heinlein name and the time travel concept. Even if that’s true, it still looks like a visually arresting thriller.

BUT! And this might be the biggest “but” in film history – if it addresses Heinlein’s concept in any way (and I wouldn’t put it past Ethan Hawke to tackle it), we are in for a hell of an ambitious film.

Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies” is a stunning mindbender about a man who creates his entire lineage using temporal paradoxes. In the time it was written, it was an important and challenging metaphor for the struggles of the transgendered, and made readers feel real emotion for a character they might have ridiculed were he a real person standing before them.

Predestination might just be a time travel noir using the barest framework of Heinlein’s story. But if it’s not…oh boy, if it’s not, if it’s true to Heinlein, it’s one of the most difficult – and potentially most important – film adaptations ever tackled.

Trailer #1

I’m a big fan of action films about indigenous peoples, because you know what? Indigenous peoples had action franchises, too. Occasionally, a film like this is exploitative, but a surprising amount of the time there’s a real passion and dedication that goes into presenting these societies in detail, and proudly.

The Dead Lands is being produced by the same group that financed Indonesia’s two The Raid movies – the best action franchise of the past decade – and they have a habit of trusting their talent and giving them the means to try out crazy ideas more traditional studios wouldn’t go near.

This means a lot in the countries of Oceania, where there isn’t exactly a lot of money for original filmmaking in the first place. Needless to say, I’m eagerly anticipating a stylish New Zealand action movie that – hopefully – is both respectful and revealing of Maori storytelling culture. After all, we get to hear stories from the perspectives of indigenous peoples far too rarely.

Trailer #1

A movie about how long it takes a man to go to the bathroom. Wait, wait! It’s more complicated. You see, he has drugs in his stomach, he’s being detained by the authorities led by Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Captain America), and he’s being stalked by the drug dealer he’s late in meeting, played by John Noble (Fringe, Sleepy Hollow). He’s cooped up in a small, Melbourne hotel room while a legal aide tries to get him free and his family turns increasingly dramatic.

It looks like a blistering, uncomfortable comedy with some truly intense moments to it, the kinds of comedies Australia does with a brutal sense of just how to make you laugh out of discomfort.

That’s our special Down Under roundup this week. By the way, if you’re looking for more news and reviews on Australian film, I highly recommend my own go-to source, Jordan and Eddie. They’re two young Australian critics who are fantastic reads.

Martial Arts, Gangster, and Action Movie in One — “The Raid 2”

Raid 2 Hammer Girl

If Stanley Kubrick were to have directed a martial arts movie, you might get something like The Raid 2. It’s an Indonesian movie by a Welsh director, sequel to 2011 surprise hit The Raid: Redemption. It’s OK if you haven’t seen the first – it’s like seeing the second Godfather without seeing the first. The two build on each other, but they’re each their own animal.

The first Raid followed an Indonesian SWAT team’s assault on a drug lord’s tenement building. It was brimming with enough gunplay, explosions, and martial arts to put it alongside Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard as one of the best action movies ever filmed.

The second Raid follows the first movie’s hero, Rama (Iko Uwais). It is an incredible action movie, but it’s an even better gangster thriller. Rama is convinced to go undercover, get arrested, and befriend the incarcerated son of a Japanese gangster who owns half of the capital Jakarta. Needless to say, few things go as planned. Rama begins discovering that being an undercover officer doesn’t mean he’s a wrench in the gangster’s works. He’s merely additional leverage in the business relationship between the gangs and Jakarta’s police.

The Raid 2 field

There are a range of decisions that make the fight scenes some of the most effective ever put to screen. Director Gareth Evans builds his film using old-fashioned suspense techniques, and his martial arts scenes – using the Indonesian style Silat – are more than just impressive choreographic sequences. He makes every fight a plot point, communicating through action the kind of relationships and character history other films explain in dialogue.

Evans shoots in long, unbroken takes, not unlike Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men). Where Cuaron’s style reflects a character’s perspective, Evans’s style anticipates a characters intent. It can be hard to communicate how someone thinks in a fight – martial artists train to slow down a situation in their heads, so a response is entirely mental. The physical action that follows is just muscle memory. You learn to plan several moves ahead. It’s incredibly difficult to translate this in a full-speed action movie to a movie theater full of people, but Evans’s approach comes the closest. It offers a unique glimpse into the strategy martial artists employ, which allows you not just to marvel at the athleticism on display, but to understand the chess match that goes on behind a fight.

The Raid 2 prison

These longer takes demand incredible feats from choreographers and actors alike. The more complicated the stunts – as in an early prison riot in a mud pit – the longer his shots are likely to be. There are unbroken fight sequences that made my jaw drop at their audacity and ambition.

No matter how easily a character might be described – Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) is deaf and uses hammers as weapons, for instance – Evans always reveals a visual detail or line of dialogue that gives us a brief window into each henchman’s soul. It transforms characters who would be one-note villains in other films into complex figures. When Rama defeats a henchman, his own moment of heroic triumph also feels like the tragic ending to somebody else’s story.

This is how a martial arts movie laden with fight scenes speaks against violence, and this is one of the most violent movies you’ll ever see. The fight choreography may be impressive, but time and again it communicates mutually assured destruction and the toll such violence takes not just on the body, but the soul as well.

The Raid 2 chess match

A vignette in the middle of the film, during which we break away from Rama, tells the story of Prakoso (Yayan Ruhian). He is a lifelong assassin who lives on the street and gives all his earnings to his estranged wife and child. His story is a heartbreaking half-hour that could stand as its own short film, culminates in an incredible fight scene, and serves as the keystone to the rest of the plot.

Prakoso’s story is also an opportunity to condense one of The Raid 2‘s underlying themes: the plight of the everyday laborer. This is the 95% of everyone – American, Indonesian, Japanese, whoever they might be – who just try to live their lives well, go to work, and do right by their families. Prakoso is an assassin, but these others are not, and they occur in scene after scene, constantly apologizing to gangsters for not groveling well enough or serving them fast enough. It’s a bitter message from a country rife with organized gangs peddling drugs, sex, and violence. It’s obviously important for the makers of The Raid 2 to communicate to the rest of the world – and to their own citizens – that crime and corruption may be what they endure, but it’s not what defines who they are as a country or a people.

This is an exciting action movie, an accomplished martial arts film, and an epic, intelligent gangster tale with a lot to say. There are treats in here for aficionados of any of those genres, and I haven’t even hit on how beautifully The Raid 2 is filmed, or how lush its design is. Be aware this is an exceptionally hard-R rated movie for its violence and a moment of sexuality.

The Raid 2 heartbreak