Recently I have been thinking a lot about the way the pandemic has necessitated all sorts of substitutes for ordinary experiences: You still go to church, but on Skype. You still have happy hours, but on Zoom. You still take an exercise class, but it’s on a laptop. You still bake bread, but now it’s with sourdough starter. And you still watch big, dumb action movies, but on Netflix.
Movies like Extraction, which, at its best, serves as a tolerable substitute for the theatrical experience. The thing about substitutes is not that they’re great, but that they work well enough. You can make do with them when the thing you really want isn’t available. That’s Extraction.
Starring Chris Hemsworth’s jawline, last seen as attached to the Marvel superhero Thor, it’s the product of a script by Avengers: Endgame co-director Joe Russo, and first-time director Sam Hargrove, who is mainly known for his work as a Marvel stunt coordinator. Russo and his brother Anthony were presumably too busy to take on a relatively small project like this; Hargrove, like so many substitutes, was what they had on hand.
As it turns out, he works fairly well: The story—about a mercenary who takes a job rescuing (hence, extracting) the son of an Indian crime lord who’s been kidnapped by a rival—is as thin as the generic brand toilet paper you’ve probably been stocking up on, but Hargrove’s action scenes exude real energy and dynamism. There’s an exuberance to the movie’s best moments, and a sense of speed and physical heft. It sometimes seems like Hargrove’s goal was to film cinematic punching and shooting as if no one had ever filmed punching or shooting before.
The standout sequence is a 12-minute single-take fight that moves through narrow buildings and out onto city streets: The camera moves furtively, in panicked bursts, like an endangered man looking around for signs of trouble, of which there are many. But despite the frantic motion and all the whips and pans, the continuous shot means it’s admirably clear and coherent; when Chris Hemsworth slams a stuntman’s head into something (and then slams it again, and again, and so forth), there’s never any question about what’s going on: Yes, you will think, that’s definitely Chris Hemsworth slamming a stuntman’s head into something. The single take isn’t a real single take of course, but a series of 36 smaller shots strung together to look like one; it’s a substitute, but an effective one.
As for Hemsworth, he’s the closest thing the movie offers to a genuine article, a non-substitute good: There are other, lesser Hemsworths available (Liam, for example), but Chris is the one you really want. As the ridiculously named Tyler Rake—which is perilously close to something like Jake Mancrush—he alone embodies the full qualities of Hemsworthiness, the sense of scale and fortitude, the glowering ruggedness, the consistent lack of vocal intonation.
Early in the movie, he leaps off a cliff into a placid lake, pausing at the bottom to strike a meditative pose, as if contemplating his own meaning, and inviting viewers to do the same. Extraction is a deep dive into his being: At times, his physical presence threatens to overwhelm the movie’s action: Here is a Hemsworth Hemsworthing, as only this particular Hemsworth can.
Still, he acts as a sort of substitute for the old action stars of the 1980s and ’90s, the hunks of muscle and brooding menace who were more bicep than man. With some small differences, Extraction is the sort of film some burly dude hoping to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger might have made in 1986. It’s an old-school Dolph Lundgren picture, with slightly better choreography.
Even before the pandemic, Netflix sometimes seemed to specialize in resurrecting these lost genres, the sorts of competent but mostly forgettable films that studios churned out on the regular before superhero movies and animated fare took over their slates. From rom-coms to thrillers to kids-at-camp adventures, these genre throwbacks are substitutes, fill-ins for something lost to a changing world. And if they aren’t always quite as good as their predecessors, they are frequently pretty decent—and far better than nothing at all.
The summer movie season usually kicks off in earnest around this time of year, with studios showing off their latest sequels. This year, we were supposed to see new a new James Bond, Black Widow’s first solo outing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the ninth film in the Fast & Furious franchise.
But to a first approximation, no one in America has seen a movie in a theater in over a month. And even if states allow theaters to reopen in the near future, it’s unlikely that most theaters will open their doors before July, when the next wave of non-delayed studio blockbusters is set to arrive on big screens. In the meantime, we’ll have to subsist on substitutes like Extraction, the Zoom happy hour of action movies. It’s definitely not the real thing, but it’ll do.