SAN ANTONIO — The stares are hard and the violence harder in “Extraction 2,” but in neither case is the experience of watching this sequel to one of Netflix’s (supposed) most successful original films driven as convincingly by what’s in characters’ hearts and minds as where their knives and fists are swinging towards.
That isn’t in itself a bad thing for a burgeoning Netflix franchise content with deploying overused action-movie tropes – the loner mercenary, the all-consuming criminal organization, the child caught between legacy and sensibility – upon which to hang some gritty punch-shoot-repeat set pieces that dazzle in their construction but bore in their lack of ultimate consequence. But it is notable that when we see burly protagonist Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) willing himself back to full strength after the last movie’s bloody finale, our mind goes to the career existentialism the longtime Marvel actor is apparently rehabbing from these days—not whether Tyler can ever forgive himself over leaving his sick child years earlier for deployment to Afghanistan, only to never see him again.
For all the half-baked thematic talk in “Extraction 2” about consuming oneself by guilt or lies, the movie is as adept at eating away its own dramatic potential as it is at staging some remarkable action. Worry not about if the children Tyler drops in to save from a hellish Georgian prison will live to see daylight at the other end of a nearly 25-minute, made-to-look-like-one-continuous-shot sequence that nearly justifies the hour of hubbub around it; worry instead about how the next minute will possibly top the one you’re in right now, amid a dynamic, visceral set piece that starts in the prison’s bowels and ends on a speeding train being stalked from the sky. “Prepare for the ride of your life,” the movie’s tagline reads. Credit where credit’s due: I might have spent much of “Extraction 2” with my legs splayed on the couch and tempted to reach for my phone, but when the movie’s pulse is racing I felt buckled into an experience I wished I was watching in a packed theater. When it comes to Netflix originals made by someone on a lower tier than that occupied by Cuaron, Scorsese, Campion or Kaufman, that isn’t easy to accomplish.
Still, it was hard not to compare the most thrilling parts of “Extraction 2” with last year’s French, Netflix-released drama “Athena,” specifically the way that movie's own “single-shot” showstopper tightly laces politics and history into its depiction of a police station raid and subsequent escape. For all the ways “Extraction 2’s” prison breakout effectively draws us into the escalating madness around Tyler – a mise en scène of bullets, bodies and sweaty desperation – it still culminates with an improvised pose of a movie that never expected it to go that well in the storyboarding phase.
“Extraction 2” will manage to hold run-and-gun cinema aficionados over in the theatrical gap between “John Wick 4” and next month’s “Mission: Impossible” installment (so long as they can appreciate this movie opting for grittier, jerkier chaos over the balletic spectacle of those other franchises). But just two entries in, I’m not betting that director Sam Hargrave, his writers and Hemsworth will ever reveal in Tyler anything as compelling as the grief-tinged mystery of Keanu Reeve’s John Wick or the bulletproof selflessness of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. Hemsworth's backstory can be helped along by all the sunshine-filled flashbacks Hargrave is willing to give him; it doesn’t take away from the fact that his star communicates more in a digital magazine cover than in a heart-to-heart with a nephew caught in the ideological thicket of violence and retribution.
The good thing about “Extraction 2” is that it appears at peace with that fact, and is a touch more streamlined and a bit less tiresome than its predecessor as a result. The bad thing about “Extraction 2” is that it has yet to fully render that compromise on the screen, to fully justify a two-hour runtime. I’m sure there will be subsequent entries for Hargrave and co. to try and carve out their own place in a storytelling space where even the characters know what we’re here for, and that it isn’t deep introspection defined by cliché one-liners or glances toward hopeful horizons.
It’s a tougher needle to thread than some might give “Extraction’s” creators credit for, and tougher still because the task centers on a character whose line of work doesn’t involved threading needles so much as blasting through them with fists and blades, whirling riot shields and somersaulting train cars.
"Extraction 2" is now streaming on Netflix. Rated R for strong/bloody violence throughout and language. Runtime: 2 hours, 2 minutes.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Golshifteh Farahani, Adam Bessa, Tornike Gogrichiani
Directed by Sam Hargrave; written by Joe Russo, with story credit for Anthony Russo