Sam Hargrave has been one of Hollywood’s top stuntmen and coordinators, most notably for his work across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and Captain America: Civil War.
But for Hargrave, it’s been more than just taking a fall or a punch.
He’s been taking notes.
Back when he was studying film in the early 2000s at UNC Chapel Hill, Hargrave was introduced to classic Hong Kong action movies. “I was hooked,” he says. “For four years, I would watch an action sequence while I ate. I just ingested it like a drug.”
Hargrave shot a few short films in college, but with a background in martial arts, he entered Hollywood as a stuntman. Although he loved the physical and mental challenge of performing and choreographing stunts, he always carried a flame for directing.
“I just wanted to be the white Jackie Chan, truthfully,” Hargrave says. “He started as a stuntman and then he’d write, direct, act. He did everything.”
Fast-forward 15 years, and Hargrave is finally in the director’s chair with his debut feature film, Extraction.
Written by Joe Russo (co-director of those Marvel movies for which Hargrave was stunt coordinator), Extraction stars Chris Hemsworth as Tyler Rake, a black-market mercenary hired to rescue a crime lord’s son Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) who’s been kidnapped by a rival.
Naturally, intricate fight sequences are at the core of Extraction, and they’re as elegant as they are grisly, which should be expected from a stunt coordinator as seasoned as Hargrave. However, Hargrave matches his choreography with skillful camerawork and timing that proves just how closely he’s been paying attention during his years on sets.
“It felt like a natural progression,” Hargrave says of his segue into directing. “[As a stunt coordinator], you’re directing constantly. You’re finding out where to put the camera and how to tell a story with it.”
Hargrave explains how his decade-plus worth of stunt work prepared him to direct Extraction and why behind every bone-crunching punch and flying bullet, there should be a story to go along with it.
With Extraction, Hargrave joins the ranks of other stuntmen including Chad Stahelski (John Wick) and David Leitch (Atomic Blonde) who have stepped behind the camera. Quite frankly, more stuntmen and women probably should. It goes without saying that someone with experiential knowledge in fight coordination would know what plays best to camera.
“Above all, we’re fans of action, and we have certain ways of seeing it done that we appreciate,” Hargrave says. “We all had to work on films where you didn’t have the time or money, or actors didn’t want to train, so you had to hide things with tight camera shots or quick cuts. So when I got the chance to direct, it’s like, this is how I enjoy watching these scenes unfold.”
For Hargrave, that meant making the camera its own character in a way.
During the first sprawling action sequence in Extraction, Tyler finds himself fending off the opposition in a crowded marketplace and a residential complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The tightly packed environment meant that going wide might lose a lot of the action in a hectic backdrop. So Hargrave went for the direct opposite by plunging the camera in the middle of the melee.
“Whether it’s the car chase or any of the fight scenes and choreography, none of it is necessarily unique or different. You can only kick or punch in so many ways, and gravity works the same for everybody,” Hargrave says. “It then becomes, how do you capture it and from what perspective are you telling the story?”
“The camera is basically another character,” Hargrave continues. “So you feel like you’re a part of it in a way, and yet you’re back far enough where you can still see what’s happening.”
Hargrave doesn’t just want you to see what’s happening in the fight; he wants you to consider how the characters got there and what’s going to happen when that scene ends.
“It’s all about not just being so caught up in the moves as the choreographer because they’re cool,” Hargrave says. “It’s about how does this work for the character? Because action without story is just action for the sake of action, which I never want to do.”
Tyler and Ovi’s relationship becomes the heart of the film, and Hargrave was careful to show how that relationship developed in every fight scene, from Ovi slowly finding something of a protector and father figure in Tyler to Tyler seeing Ovi as more than just a mission to complete.
“Moving the story forward and revealing something about character, I think that’s key,” Hargrave says. “That’s maybe why I gravitated so much towards Jackie Chan. He always had a way of making you care about his character and what he was going through. You’re invested in their journey so that each one of their moves means so much more.”
Even when one of those moves is smashing someone face first into a rake.
It’s no exaggeration to say Extraction earned its R rating. Point-blank shootings, snapped necks, and yes, a rake through the eye, barely scratch the surface of what to expect in Extraction‘s fight sequences. You could think that after years of coordinating PG-13 fare for the MCU, Hargrave may have felt a sense of liberation to give viewers a hard R’s worth of violence.
But, in even bloody carnage, Hargrave is still intent on story.
“It’s a strange thing to say in that it’s basically my job to design violence, but I didn’t want to glorify violence,” Hargrave says. “If you do recoil from it, that’s a good thing. Violence isn’t something that I want people to get numbed to.”
Instead, Hargrave uses it as a mechanism to underscore how someone’s actions shape not only their destiny but also those around them. In several fight scenes, the children of Tyler’s adversaries are present while he’s shooting and stomping his way to survival. To them, Tyler becomes public enemy number one, which plays out in later scenes. But to the audience, Tyler is just a mercenary caught in the middle of situations that, as we see later, are beyond his control.
“We were trying to build a world that is violent, but there are real consequences to that violence,” Hargrave says. “And it’s all about perspective. Depending on what lens you’re viewing this through, the same person can be good or bad depending on who’s watching.”