Why a formulaic action flick became Netflix's biggest movie ever
Extraction, Netflix's latest foray into blockbuster filmmaking, opens with a bloodied, heavily armed Chris Hemsworth in a shootout on a sunstruck, gridlocked bridge. He gets hit, crumples, and, as he stares dully toward us, we see what's in his mind: a gauzy remembrance of some brighter, easier past. The film then moves, with great portent, back in time, to TWO DAYS AGO. The next hour and 40 minutes shows how he got to that spot, on that bridge, covered in bruises and grime.
If you've ever seen an action movie, you can guess the rough outlines of the journey. Hemsworth's Tyler Rake is a mercenary with a troubled past (have you ever met a carefree mercenary?) hired to rescue a kidnapped teenager from a drug lord's army in the heart of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Extraction traffics in nearly every known action trope, from the old and regrettable (Rake is the white savior in a sweaty foreign land, à la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) to the new and bracing (he kills, according to one invaluable tally, 183 men in one bravura, John Wick-style scene). But there are no secret societies here, as in the Wick films; unlike Mad Max: Fury Road, there is certainly no feminist twist (in fact, there are barely any women at all). Aside from one scene, not for the faint of eyeball, in which a garden rake is used as a murder weapon, there's not much invention here. But the movie — directed by former stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave from a script by Joe Russo, half of Marvel's Russo brothers — knows we've seen enough such films to fill in the blanks ourselves. Extraction is nothing but chassis, but it's sturdy enough to run.
Since its late-April premiere, it has become Netflix's most-watched original movie, surpassing prestige fare like The Irishman and Dolemite is My Name and breakout hits like To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Bird Box. To outdo Martin Scorsese and Sandra Bullock is remarkable for a hard-R action film with so little on its mind. Its success has come, of course, amid a worldwide quarantine; were humanity able to go to restaurants, bars, and actual movie theaters, its appeal would have been more niche. But the fact still remains: close to 100 million households have watched, and seemingly enjoyed, a film in which a boy cuts off his own finger to impress a dead-eyed crime boss. The Willoughbys, this is not.
In the last two months, it's become common to use the deprivations of quarantine and the anxiety of pandemic to explain a thing's popularity: Tiger King, Netflix's other COVID-19 smash, was flagrantly outrageous enough to drown out the day's terrible news. ESPN's The Last Dance has given us not only basketball — remember basketball? — but 10 solid hours of uncomplicated mass-market nostalgia. The exercise has become a cliché, but it's also unavoidable; the shape of society dictates what we're drawn to. And though it's debatable whether or not Extraction would've been embraced in a COVID-free world, its blunt relentlessness has functioned as a surprising balm.
While a solution to our present medical nightmare is likely months or years away, Tyler Rake is solution personified, implacable and driven. Give him two days, and he'll get the job done; he's the cure, as an older action hero might've said. Hemsworth's performance is notable for its energy; aside from a handful of rote character-building scenes, he's always in motion, always looking ahead. No movement is wasted, whether he's ducking bullets in a speeding Mercedes or leaping from a cliff. In a time when our own movement has been curtailed and the race for a remedy is full of stumbles — Remdesivir will save us! Remdesivir is worthless! — such single-mindedness is exhilarating. And as President Trump baffles the nation with his garbled hydroxychloroquine dreams, Hemsworth gives us a point man so sternly focused that nothing — not even death — seems likely to take him down. He's a fictional character, sure, but it's hard not to desire such qualities in those elected to solve our real-world problems. There's a reason why Trump-as-Rambo is a favored image of the Photoshop Right.
Extraction may be the perfect movie for this moment, but Netflix is also betting that, even in a COVID-free (or COVID-reduced) future, we'll continue to crave such blood-soaked heroism: Extraction 2 is reportedly in the works, with Hemsworth apparently on board. Because if there's anything we can count on, global crisis or not, it's that there will always be a sequel. Tyler Rake, and his bosses at Netflix, will simply not be stopped.
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