Film reviews: Extraction | Moffie | Astronaut
Extraction (15) ****
Moffie (18) ***
Astronaut (PG) **
Netflix’s efforts to muscle in on the Hollywood action blockbuster have been a pretty disappointing thus far. JC Chandor’s solid Ben Affleck thriller Triple Frontier aside, its highest profile gambit has been Michael Bay’s typically insane 6 Underground, hardly the most auspicious of entries into a genre that’s been superseded by the rise of Marvel and the nonsense Fast and Furious franchise. But with Extraction, the streaming giant has managed to make its first truly satisfying big budget action thriller by funding Marvel maestros Joe and Anthony Russo (Avengers Endgame/Infinity War) to produce a tense kidnap-and-rescue vehicle for Thor star Chris Hemsworth that takes a bunch of genre clichés and transforms them into a virtuosic symphony of neck-breaking, head-cracking, car-smashing mayhem.
Adapted from the Russos’ own 2014 graphic novel Ciudad and directed by one of their prodigies, Sam Hargrave, the film stars Hemsworth as Tyler Drake, a burned-out ex-soldier who specialises in getting people out of impossible situations. Like every burned-out ex-soldier in every action movie ever, Tyler is a man of few words, lives a solitary existence, and has a tendency to neck pills with whisky chasers for breakfast. But while it’s easy to mock the stock nature of his character’s living-on-the-edge machismo, there’s something to be said for the way the Russos and Hargrave use such shorthand to quickly establish the basics of the story.
With Tyler’s employer (played by Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani) contracted to rescue the kid of an imprisoned Indian drug lord from Dhaka after he’s kidnapped by Bangladesh’s answer to Pablo Escobar, the film seeds some intriguing plot points early on that twist and turn the action in interesting ways, especially as the boy’s own bodyguard – played by Hindi star Randeep Hooda – is press-ganged by his boss into it retrieving the kid himself. But Tyler’s archetypal nature also gives the film some unexpected emotional heft when he ends up bonding with the boy (nicely played by Rudhraksh Jaiswal), something that inevitably transforms his mission into one of personal redemption.
But let’s not kid ourselves: action is the film’s raison d’être and on this score it doesn’t disappoint. Like John Wick director Chad Stahelski, Hargrave is a former stunt co-ordinator (he’s worked with the Russos across all their Marvel films) and, also like Stahelski, he serves up a masterclass in how to deliver fluid, balletically orchestrated combat that advances the story through ruthless and – be warned – pretty brutal action. Unlike the heightened world of the John Wick films, though, Extraction has a more rooted-in-reality story and, accordingly, there’s a grittiness to its execution that’s reminiscent of the first three Bourne films and of Children of Men. In the film’s action centrepiece, for instance, Hargrave approximates the propulsive energy of the former and the dazzling technical proficiency of the latter to create a series of extraordinary single-shot Steadicam car chases and fight sequences that pinball the characters through the streets of Dhakar, into buildings, across rooftops and over balconies, all the while keeping his camera – and by extension us – close to the action, yet widening the scope in subtle ways to give us multiple characters’ perspectives without breaking the continuous flow of what’s unfurling on screen. What a rush.
In the opening minutes of South African Apartheid drama Moffie, a young white conscript to the minority government’s armed forces is given a porn mag by his estranged father “to use as ammunition.” It’s an odd choice of words, until it’s made clear that the film’s title is an Afrikaans gay slur. Suddenly, this awkward father/son exchange is reframed as a failing father’s coded attempt to acknowledge his son’s sexuality and offer a modicum of protection from the brutality he suspects is coming his way as he’s enlisted to defend a racist regime against the threat of Communism on the Angolan border. Set in 1981, the film follows the son, who’s name is Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer), as he goes through bootcamp, where he’s forced to come to terms with his burgeoning sexuality amid a violent and virulent strain of institutionalised homophobia.
Given the Top Gun-style homoeroticism of the volleyball games he plays with his fellow recruits, this feels like an overcorrection of monstrous proportions, but is actually entirely in keeping with a country given to denial on national scale. Writer/director Oliver Hermanus, one of South Africa’s most promising black filmmakers, expands that idea into a subtle critique of his home country’s shameful history, one that doesn’t trade on the spectacle of black victimisation normally found in films about Apartheid (there’s only one pointed scene of overt racism here), but rather uses Nicholas’s queer-themed coming-of-age story to reflect the bubble-like perspective of a moribund political class doing its utmost to ignore the simmering tensions lying just beneath the surface – something beautifully evoked in the film’s tender final scene.
A care-home-bound civil engineer (Richard Dreyfuss) gets a shot at fulfilling a life-long ambition to travel into space in Astronaut, a frustratingly corny and vaguely patronising drama about ageing and never giving up on your dreams. Though Dreyfuss’s presence is an undoubted casting coup given his association with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer/director Shelagh McCloud squanders it with an underpowered story and a simplistic TV-movie-style approach. ■
Extraction is streaming on Netflix; Moffie is available from Curzon Home Cinema; Astronaut is available on most video-on-demand platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google and Rakuten.
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