The highest-grossing movie of 2020 was an action movie. This was simply by default; movie theaters were only really a thing for the first two and a half months of the year. Bad Boys For Life wouldn’t have even been one of the 10 biggest hits of 2019. But it was a genuine hit. The third Bad Boys movie came out in a sleepy mid-January weekend with only Oscar contenders as its competition, and it managed to pull in more than $200 million domestic—impressive for a new entry in an action franchise that had been quiet for 17 years. It’s a pretty fun ride, too, with Jacob Scipio turning in a magnetic superhuman-villain performance and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah proving that they’re better at Michael Bay-style shootouts than Bay himself is these days.
The most consequential movie of 2020 was also an action movie. With Tenet, Christopher Nolan did his best to make a quantum-physics James Bond flick. That’s a confounding goal, and Nolan made an incoherent mess out of it, but his film looks great and has some lovely, kinetic, expensive-looking set pieces. Nolan used all his pull to ram Tenet into theaters while the pandemic still raged, and the result was a huge loss for Warner Bros. A few months later, the studio announced that it would drop all its 2021 movies straight to its HBO Max streaming service—presumably a direct response to Tenet bricking the way it did. In his zeal to bring back movie theaters before the general public felt ready to return, Nolan may have effectively doomed the theatrical experience for the next year.
Action films depend on spectacle, on physical contact and mass catharsis—two things in short supply in 2020. Bad Boys For Life succeeded by accidentally showing up early enough to beat the pandemic. Tenet failed by wrongly insisting that the pandemic was over. Most of the planned 2020 blockbusters, including action spectaculars like No Time To Die and Fast & Furious 9, delayed their releases until next year. That’s why the most influential 2020 action film will probably end up being the one that everyone got to watch.
A few months after its April release, Netflix announced that Extraction, its Chris Hemsworth headshot marathon, was the most-watched original film in the streaming service’s history. It’s always tough to take Netflix’s self-reported numbers at face value, and in November, Variety estimated that Extraction was only the fourth-most-streamed film of 2020—behind Hamilton, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and Amazon’s Dave Bautista-is-grumpy family comedy My Spy. Whatever the case, though, it’s clear that a whole lot of people watched Extraction. It was the right movie at the right time: a grimy, cathartic international bone-snapper that showed up in living rooms when many of us were just getting used to the idea that we’d be stuck in those living rooms for the foreseeable future. Its timing was good.
Extraction is a straight-up action movie, one made by people who clearly love the genre. It’s not a nostalgic star vehicle like Bad Boys For Life or a narrative pretzel like Tenet. Instead, Extraction knows that the fights are the draw—that a good martial arts brawl is a good enough reason to sit in a dark room for a couple of hours. It promises, and it delivers.
A few years ago, the American action-cinema landscape changed when Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two former stuntmen and second-unit directors, made John Wick, a stealth hit that took its aesthetic cues from Asian and European fight movies. Both Stahelski and Leitch are now Hollywood hands—the former did the John Wick sequels, the latter Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw. Stahelski and Leitch aren’t the first stuntmen-turned-directors; Smokey And The Bandit director Hal Needham started out as Burt Reynolds’ stunt double. But I have to imagine that Stahelski and Leitch’s success is what convinced the Russo brothers to give Extraction director Sam Hargrave a shot.
The Russos, currently coasting on Hollywood goodwill after making mind-boggling sums of money with the last two Avengers movies, are action-movie heads—something that was obvious back when they were working John Woo homages into the Community episodes they were directing. The Russos shepherded Extraction through development, with both brothers producing and with Joe Russo writing the screenplay, adapting a graphic novel that he’d cowritten.
Hargrave had been choreographing fights in the Russos’ films since Captain America: Civil War, and he’s also worked as Chris Evans’ stunt double. Hargrave had also put together fights for bugnuts modern action classics like Wolf Warrior II. (More recently, Hargrave has served as second-unit director on season two of The Mandalorian, so there’s a good chance that he choreographed the last great fight scene you saw.) The Russos wanted to make an action flick, and Hargrave was the person to make it with.
Extraction works in conversation with all the other cool shit that’s been happening globally in action movies for the past decade or two. The premise—Chris Hemsworth has to get a kid out of a city while everyone’s trying to kill them both—has a brutal simplicity that’s clearly inspired by The Raid. The knife fights are fast and grisly, like the ones in South Korean films like The Man From Nowhere and The New World. The shootouts aren’t John Woo-style dramatic; instead, they’re businesslike and efficient, like the ones in Michael Mann or recent Johnnie To pictures. And right in the middle, there’s a wild, chaotic long-take scene that reminds me of nothing so much as Children Of Men.
The 11-minute single-shot scene isn’t really a single-shot scene. It’s dozens of takes, stitched together with whip pans. Even with that in mind—and even when you can spot the cuts—it’s a breathless, virtuosic piece of direction. That scene goes from car chase to shootout to knife fight to guys jumping off of roofs to guys falling off of roofs. Chris Hemsworth gets hit with a car. Randeep Hooda gets hit with a truck. Some shit explodes. It gets your heart rate going.
It’s good that the action scenes are so relentless, since the actual story doesn’t have much going on. Hemsworth is a depressed, half-suicidal mercenary named Tyler Rake. (I am delighted to report that he does kill a guy with a rake at one point, though he regrettably neglects to crack a one-liner afterward.) The son of an Indian drug lord has been kidnapped by a rival drug lord in Bangladesh, and Rake and his team have been hired to go get him out. But the guy doing the hiring doesn’t want to pay, so he’s brought in his own team of gunmen to take out the gunmen he’s already paying—a needlessly complicated plan if you’ve already got gunmen on the payroll. Rake could save himself by making a deal and killing the kid, but instead he bonds with him and goes into self-sacrifice overdrive to get him to safety—even if that means murdering hundreds of gangsters and corrupt cops and servicemen on his way out of town.
Hemsworth is impressive in fight scenes, and it’s fun to see him use his natural Australian accent in a stoic and Russell Crowe-ish way, even if he doesn’t get to utilize any of the comic timing or movie-star charisma that made him so great in something like Thor: Ragnarok. Hooda, the Bollywood star who plays the drug lord’s fixer, has even more presence than Hemsworth, and he gets across the conflicted vulnerability of being a killing machine who’s forced to work for someone even more dangerous. As the kid, Rudhraksh Jaiswal isn’t bad, either. But the bonding scenes are all the most perfunctory things imaginable, and they only vaguely gesture at emotional beats that simply aren’t there.
Instead, if you’re going to watch Extraction, you’re doing it for the fights, not for the drama. Fortunately, there are plenty of us who see a great movie fight as an end in itself, not as a means to better explain a character’s motivation or whatever. Hemsworth does better acting in some of those fight scenes than in the dialogue bits. There’s one part, for instance, where someone has Rake at gunpoint and tries to intimidate him, and Rake steals the guy’s cigarette, then doesn’t flinch when the guy puts a pistol to his head and pulls the trigger. There’s another where Rake is cornered by a group of berserk armed children, and he’s both taken aback and pissed off that he has to beat up these little kids.
Watching Extraction, you can almost see Netflix’s algorithm at work. It’s a globally minded film: minimal dialogue, maximal action, an international cast from Australia and India and Iran. (Other than Hargrave himself, who plays a doomed sniper, the only prominent American in the cast is Netflix all-star David Harbour, who gets in a 10-minute extended cameo halfway through. Harbour seems like he can handle himself in a fight, and he’s also the only person in the movie who seems to be having any fun.) The film hints at the idea that its hero might not be the best guy in the world, but it pits him against villains who would be uncomplicatedly evil in any language. The main bad guy, for instance, is introduced standing by impassively as his henchman throws a little kid off a rooftop.
In a lot of ways, a movie like Extraction feels like the future of action cinema. Movie theaters won’t be a factor for a while, and so globally minded streaming services will put together movies like this, doing everything possible to appeal to gigantic cross-cultural audiences on relatively sane budgets. While all the major film studios scramble to figure out a pandemic plan, Netflix is right there, cranking out elementally satisfying movies like Extraction. There’s already an Extraction sequel on the way. I’ll be there on opening night, especially since “there” just means my living room.
Other notable 2020 action movies: The Brazilian film Bacurau doesn’t exactly fit into any particular genre. It’s a Western and a horror flick and a sci-fi puzzle-box and an agitprop polemic. It’s also got a heavy dose of ’70s-style grindhouse nastiness that reminded me of Assault On Precinct 13. I loved it. Best thing I saw all year.
Most of 2020's best action movies came with subtitles. The Hong Kong great Donnie Yen, for instance, appeared in Disney’s live-action Mulan, but American audiences also got to see him take one last crack at his greatest role, wrapping up his Chinese blockbuster saga with Ip Man 4: The Finale. Yen is now 57 years old, and he has no business being able to move like he does. Ip Man 4, which came out in China in 2019 (and actually hit American theaters on Christmas of last year, but close enough), gave Yen a proper emotional sendoff and a chance to fight the British B-movie titan Scott Adkins, which ruled. (Yen also put on a fat suit to star in an action-comedy called, I swear to god, Enter The Fat Dragon. I skipped that one.)
The French Netflix film Lost Bullet is an intense, physical crime thriller, and it’s got a scene where a guy beats up a bunch of cops and escapes a police station that’s as mad-dog exciting as the one in First Blood. Wira, from Malaysia, has a melodramatic plot but some beautifully intense Raid-style fighting. I didn’t see any truly great South Korean films, but I had fun with Time To Hunt, a dystopian fable about some petty-criminal kids who get in over their heads with some dangerous people. The Russian import Why Don’t You Just Die! is more black comedy than anything else, but it might’ve made me wince harder than anything else I saw this year. Even the French Canadians got in on it, with the nerve-jangling Netflix survivalist thriller The Decline.
There were some good low-budget English-language efforts, too. I loved Debt Collectors, a violent buddy flick with the aforementioned Scott Adkins. VFW is pure grindhouse pastiche, with a team of veterans fighting to get out of a bar that’s surrounded by apocalyptic punk-rock psychos. Alone, from Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning director John Hyams, is a stark survival thriller that doesn’t let up until the final frame. And Jiu Jitsu lines up action icons like Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage to tell a story about, I swear to god, invading martial arts aliens.
Some of the year’s few superhero movies also basically qualify as action films: The Old Guard, Bloodshot, even Birds Of Prey. But way too many of this year’s Hollywood offerings were things that would’ve only gotten perfunctory theater runs even without the pandemic: Honest Thief, Ava, The Tax Collector, The Doorman. (The Rhythm Section showed up early enough that it did show in theaters, but just barely.) As it is, these films showed up on VOD and in Redbox, and the world mostly ignored them. No great loss there.