When it comes to modern filmmaking’s fascination with one-take, no-cuts action sequences, the nexus point is undoubtedly Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian epic Children of Men. That 2006 movie features several of those extended one-shot scenes, or “oners,” as the industry calls them. The most impressive comes early in the film, as Clive Owen and his crew drive through a secluded forest. Suddenly, a burning car barrels down a hill and blocks their path. In an instant, they’re beset by attackers, leading to an astonishing one-shot chase where the camera moves from inside the car to out in the road. Cuarón and his team had to create entirely new technology to achieve it. But now, more than 15 years later, CGI has made this kind of trick old hat.
For every jaw-dropping fight scene like Atomic Blonde’s 10-minute barnburner, there are endless instantly forgettable attempts at long-take action scenes, awash in CGI blurring to cover their cuts. For Extraction 2 director Sam Hargrave, escaping that dynamic and finding something new and personal within the oner was a challenge as thrilling as the finished product. His answer to that challenge is one of the most head-spinning oners ever committed to the screen. And how he achieved it is equally extraordinary.
“I think the oner, when used as a storytelling tool, can be very effective,” Hargrave told Polygon over Zoom, ahead of Extraction 2’s release. “I think if you use it as a device, as a gimmick, it can be overdone or get a little bit cliche. But the reason for my wanting to use it in the first [Extraction] and then in this film is to provide an immersive experience for the audience. And for something like this, it’s also a way to lens the action in a manner that differentiates it from other films a little bit. Because there are so many great action movies out there, so many great designers and directors, how does Sam Hargrave bring a point of view to a sequence that is maybe just mine, and make it unique to this franchise?”
In the first Extraction, Hargrave set out to define himself as a first-time filmmaker by shooting a dizzying 10-minute oner. Extraction follows mercenary ex-soldier Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) as he escorts a young kidnapping victim from a lethal situation. In the sequel, Rake enters a dangerous prison to rescue the family of a violent gangster. Once he gets to them, what follows is a 21-minute odyssey where Rake and the family fight through the prison and out into the prison yard, jump into armored vehicles waiting for them outside, evade pursuit through a forest, board a cargo train to escape, then fight off invaders along the train.
That sounds standard enough — fight, chase, fight, chase — but the set-piece contains a series of striking mini set-pieces, all essentially happening in real time. The biggest stunt has Rake’s enemies landing a helicopter on the moving train, as he alternates between hand-to-hand combat and machine-gunning the helicopter. It’s confounding stuff. Yes, there are hidden stitches that obscure some cuts, but the action largely happened on location just as you’re seeing it on the screen, which pulls the audience right into the danger with Rake.
Hargrave knew he had to top the oner from the first film, and his goal was to extract audiences from their seats at home and into the film itself. “You as the audience get to go with the character on a journey in real time, and hopefully by the end of it, be exhausted, just as exhausted as the character is,” he says.
That immersiveness is key to Extraction 2, which was made for streaming — most people will only have the option of viewing it at home. This is where the concept of a oner has to evolve past mildly impressing the audience tomaking them think, How the hell did they pull that off? As we hand-wring over the future of cinema as a theatrical experience, Hargrave is one of the first filmmakers to square the circle by shooting action for streaming that feels just as massive on a television as it would in a multiplex.
Hargrave’s experience as a stunt professional sets him apart from his peers. While stunt pros have always made for great directors, dating all the way back to Hal Needham, we’re living in a bit of a golden age of stunt crews as directors in American action cinema. Filmmakers like Chad Stahelski (the John Wick series) and David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Bullet Train) got their start in stunts, and brought their love of elaborate action into their directorial stints. Hargrave, having worked with Leitch on Atomic Blonde, as well as in the Marvel and Hunger Games franchises, followed a similar path.
Hargrave’s stunt past prepared him for scenes like the gargantuan oner in Extraction 2 — most notably as a camera operator. Hargrave takes an almost Buster Keaton-esque approach toward not only creating these incredible feats of human achievement, but in shooting them personally.
“The real challenge, truthfully, for me, is that a lot of operators and camera people could do a better job than I did, but there’s a certain weight of responsibility because of where I want to put the camera,” Hargrave says. “Sometimes it’s in a pretty dangerous spot. For example, on the second movie, when we were landing a real helicopter on a moving train, and I want the camera to walk underneath the helicopter as it lands, and then wrap around and see the helicopter leave. That’s a fairly dangerous stunt to pull off. I was blown off the side of the train. Luckily, I had a harness and a cable on during rehearsal, because [I was] walking into hurricane-force winds.”
Hargrave says his stunt career put him in a lot of “tricky situations,” but that they gave him a sense for what is and isn’t safe on set. “I have a lot of confidence in myself to be able to read the dangers and get out of those situations, should something go wrong,” he says. “I feel more comfortable putting myself in harm’s way than someone else. Truthfully, the main reason I end up doing a lot of those things is not because I’m a better operator, per se. It’s just [that] I feel more comfortable putting myself in harm’s way.”
At this point, though, his directorial experience also comes into play when he’s choosing his own shots in the middle of the action. “I have spent many, many thousands of hours shooting and cutting action,” he says. “So I do have a sensibility of when things are going to happen, where they’re going to go. I can watch body language in a fight scene and anticipate where things are going to end up, just based on an acquired sensibility over the decades of doing this. So it does help sometimes to save a sequence — if things are not going exactly according to plan or choreography, I can go, Uh-oh, it’s going south, let me move the camera. And I can still catch the action, because of my knowledge of what’s going to happen.”
All of this means that Hargrave isn’t just directing the film, operating the camera, or even helping create the stunts. He’s performing the stunts with his actors and crew, in order to pull off genuinely eye-popping shots. So many oners fail because they’re often static medium-wides that weave through a scene, never changing perspective. Hargrave’s work in the Extraction series feels revolutionary because he’s constantly shifting where the audience is looking.
And he’s keenly aware of that while he’s running around with the camera. “A lot of that sensibility comes from me wanting the audience to be present,” he says. “It’s as if the camera is the audience. I’m a proxy for the audience. So when something’s happening, there’s a conversation going on and I hear it, I want to get closer to it, oftentimes. Just naturally, human instinct is to get closer to hear better. […] And then something else happens, like, Oh, I forgot Hemsworth is pushing the other kid up the chute, so I’ll turn and look up there. [I’m] organically moving through the space and experiencing it, like you would if you were really there. So it becomes, again, an immersive experience, not just one where you’re sitting back in the third person and viewing it how I forced you to with this cut, and that cut, and this cut. It’s hopefully an organic experience.”
Hargrave’s advice to anyone who wants to take a crack at framing this kind of one-take action? “Don’t do it, it’s really difficult!” While he laughs as he says this, it’s clear that he’s put real thought into why to use one-take action, beyond Wouldn’t this look cool? Hargrave’s mind is always moving with the shot. It’s not enough to pull something like this off — there has to be a motivating factor. Which isn’t lost on Hargrave, a filmmaker to his core.
“It’s like a play,” he says. “You are seeing this all take place in real time. And so the challenge for me is, how do you get cinematic moments and really beautiful shots of the variety that you would get from a normal sequence? You get your wides, your mediums, tights, storytelling moments. How do you achieve all of that without cutting the camera? If you’re going to have a conversation, how do you get angles that aren’t just a two-shot, or just an over?”
He says the only solution to that dilemma is moving the camera. “And that’s really where the creativity comes in for me and the blocking becomes so important, in the space, on location. Because, for example, that sequence in the tunnels where we run up and then [Chris Hemsworth has] got to lift three people up this coal chute, it’s like, Man, this could get really boring really fast, just sitting here in a wide shot watching this happen. How do you choreograph something with the camera that you can tell the story, keep it moving, but not seem as if you’re forcing it? Don’t just do a 360, because what is motivating the camera’s movement?”
With innovators like Sam Hargrave running around, throwing themselves underneath helicopters to get the perfect shot, the oner has been rescued just as it was getting stale. He’s found a way to extract it, if you will, from thoughtless, CGI-laden exercises, and propel it to explosive new heights. If Extraction 2 proves anything, it’s that not everyone can pull these sequences off — at least not in ways that feel like they’re worth the effort.
But Hargrave has set a high bar for future one-shot action, because… How do you top this one? If anyone can do it, though, it’s probably the man who lit Chris Hemsworth on fire eight minutes into a 21-minute take, which isn’t even near the top of list of the wildest things that happen in this sequence. The oner is dead. Long live the oner.