Netflix’s Action-Movie Arms Race

Extraction director Sam Hargrave discusses the streamer’s ambitions with the genre, and how his ambiguous ending set up an inevitable Extraction 2. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

By the penultimate spasm of violence in Netflix’s original action-thriller Extraction, Chris Hemsworth — as a black-ops mercenary named Tyler Rake — has battled across Dhaka, Bangladesh, shooting drug dealers, stabbing corrupt cops, lobbing hand-grenades at surging army forces, and punching out bloodthirsty child thugs (“the Goonies from hell”). The film’s central narrative revolves around Hemsworth’s OxyContin-popping character on a search-and-rescue mission to liberate Ovi, the son of a drug dealer, from the clutches of another scummier and more nefarious drug dealer who has kidnapped him. As the arterial splatter and body count piles up, the film begins to feel like a pithy first-person-shooter game. At one point, Rake impales a bad guy’s head on the spikes of a literal rake.

Let loose upon the streaming service last month amid COVID-19 shelter-in-place measures that have been driving home-viewing metrics ever upward, Extraction was soon announced as the “biggest-ever film premiere on Netflix — with a projected 90 million households getting in on the action in the first four weeks,” according to a Netflix tweet. That success — asterisked by the fact that Netflix counts a minimum of two minutes of viewing time as household engagement — can be understood as a bellwether of the streaming giant’s larger strategy with action- and adventure-skewing original films. Produced by co-directors of Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame Anthony and Joe Russo, Extraction follows on the heels of such high-octane, leading man-driven Netflix hits as the Ryan Reynolds–starring 6 Underground, Triple Frontier (Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac), and the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Spenser Confidential (which became the platform’s most-streamed title earlier this year). And more Netflix originals are set to follow: the Blake Lively–starring, post-apocalyptic Dark Days at the Magna Carta, and the thriller Trigger Warning (to star Jessica Alba and be directed by Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya).

The rush of titles is a result of Netflix’s dedication to establishing its own, proprietary action IP in an era of studio filmmaking calibrated around cinematic sequels, reboots, and spinoffs. (To say the onset of coronavirus has changed things would be an understatement.) Vulture recently caught up with Extraction director Sam Hargrave, the acclaimed stunt/fight choreographer behind such exemplars of the action genre as Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde, and Avengers: Infinity War, to discuss the platform’s action movies arms race. The former Chris Evans stunt double explained why he made his directing debut with Netflix, the streamer’s ambitions with the genre, and how his ambiguous ending set up an inevitable Extraction 2.

After doing stunts on so many high-profile movies, what was it like transitioning to directing your own?  
I’ve been fortunate to have had a pretty awesome career in the stunt world — as a double, a fight choreographer, stunt coordinator, and second-unit director. I’ve really gotten to do a lot of cool action set pieces. I’ve worked with a lot of great directors, who were very open and allowed me to do some cool things. What Extraction allowed me to do was put it all together. Working with actors and pulling performances, getting to jump into dramatic scenes and weave a narrative from start to finish where action wasn’t the only focal point.

You worked with the Russo brothers on two Captain America movies and the last two Avengers installments. Under their production banner Agbo Films, they championed you to direct Extraction. Tell me about your meetings with Netflix. You must have had to acknowledge, “Yes, I have a great deal of experience in this one arena. But you should let me direct a film for you.” How receptive were they?
From the first time we sat down, Nick Nesbitt and the whole creative team loved the script. They had a few notes they wanted to address. Joe acted as a buffer. He wrote the script so a lot of notes went through him. He and I worked it through together so I wasn’t alone. I got a lot of wonderful mentorship on that process — how to take notes, how to act on notes and be a pro when it comes to the writer-director side of things.

It’s a really cool place to make a movie. Their attitude is always to make the best film possible. And to let the filmmakers realize their vision. So there’s not a lot of — I don’t want to say micromanaging — but once they sign on to the movie, they let you do your thing. There wasn’t a lot of meddling, if you will. It was a really cool experience.

You have worked at some of the highest levels of filmmaking with big budget studio films. But the bigger the price tag, the more oversight a filmmaker usually gets. Netflix has shown growing dedication to doing action movies. Given that push, I was wondering if you could speak to Netflix’s intentions in that department. What are their ambitions?
Not only have they wanted to be, but they are demonstrating that they are a major player in the film production side. For the longest time, they were just acquiring what others made and provided an outlet for that. Now, they’re producing content. I know for a while it was, “Oh, you’re doing a Netflix movie? When are you making a real movie?” Come on. We are making a real movie. This is just a different outlet and this is how people are absorbing content now: streaming.

Having worked on many big-budget movies and then working with Netflix — you’re right. When you have an investment that is so many hundreds of millions of dollars, understandably, there are going to be more people with a stake in the outcome. So they are going to have an opinion. But when it comes to Netflix, their model is based on subscribers, the people who want good content. So they allow the filmmakers to take more risks. They let filmmakers try things because they have a built-in audience. Not everyone who streams Netflix’s content is going to love action movies, but then there’s going to be comedies, romantic-comedies, horror: varied tastes. It allows them to take more risks. That’s an exciting environment to be in for a filmmaker. Especially a first-time filmmaker. A first-time filmmaker is a huge financial liability. You are an unproven commodity until you make your movie and see how it does. A lot of studios don’t want to take that risk.

What was Extraction’s budget?
That’s for Netflix or Agbo to say. When I saw the number, it was a higher number than I was expecting based on the script and that we were making it at Netflix. It was a higher number in the traditional studio model than I thought would be appropriate for this movie. But then, when you look at their business model, they make the number work differently.

The ending of Extraction is deliberately ambiguous. As originally written, Tyler Rake was supposed to die in the end. In the graphic novel it’s based on, he lives. In the final cut of the film, though, you don’t know what’s going on. I understand that test screenings had a lot of bearing on why things were left open-ended.  
For us as filmmakers, that final image was designed to represent hope for the kid, the character of Ovi. How that hope was interpreted, we wanted to leave up to the viewer. The cool thing about that final image is you can have your cake and eat it too. We had no idea it would be such a popular movie on Netflix. That ending leaves potential for, if it was popular, you could devise another story within that universe. That’s why we landed on this ambiguous ending.

Netflix’s Scott Stuber gave you some advice regarding an emotionally satisfying ending versus an intellectually satisfying ending. What did he say?
That was one of the best notes I’ve ever received. You might think you have an idea on the page or to shoot that’s smart. That’s clever. Ultimately, the cinematic experience should be emotionally satisfying. Good, bad, scary, happy, sad — it should emotionally satisfy the audience. That is a really important thing in making a film. How I took that advice was to not get caught up in overthinking things. Remember who you are making the movie for when you go through that process.

Joe Russo recently signed a deal to write Extraction 2. Are you attached to that project? Is Chris Hemsworth? And is there anything you can divulge at this point?
A sequel, prequel, we don’t really know. It hasn’t been written yet. We’re exploring all avenues for this story to take place. People seem excited about another movie in the Tyler Rake universe. I’m in talks to be in the middle of it. I’d be excited at the opportunity to work with Netflix again with Chris Hemsworth and the Russos, it would be a fun experience to go at it one more time.

Netflix’s Action-Movie Arms Race