This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Director: Martin Campbell
Genre: Action, Thriller
It was only a matter of time that a Chinese production would have the moxie to craft a hard-boiled revenge thriller that makes its viewership root for a terrorist. What most people probably didn’t expect was that the man behind CASINO ROYALE would use the world’s cuddliest martial arts celebrity as his surrogate to do exactly that. There are few, if any, action films that toe such complex ethical ground. THE FOREIGNER is at both times a critique of government inefficiency and a defense of the Patriot Act. To director Martin Campbell, security only responds to acts of terror after lives have already been claimed, but also confidently preaches a no-loose-end ideology. It’s a dubious moral grey area, but I’d be willing to give Campbell the benefit of the doubt, because THE FOREIGNER isn’t about how we wage the war on terror, but rather on who.
You see, THE FOREIGNER is pretty in touch with post-Brexit Britain, and as much as its inclusion of the IRA seems out of place for a 21st century terrorism thriller, I think that’s exactly the point. After the film’s inciting incident leaves a London street corner eviscerated by a Semtex, a quasi alt-IRA claim responsibility. Naturally, the head of Britain’s counter-terrorism agency runs into the main office and declares that he wants research to be done on whether this was possibly Al Qaeda or ISIS. It’s a brief moment, but an essential one. Campbell makes it clear that not even THE FOREIGNER’s key players can conform to this narrative, because white terrorists simply don’t fit into 2017’s worldview, and neither do Asian protagonists.
My Halloween costume will be “Old Jackie Chan With Glass In Face”
Which brings me to Jackie Chan, whose turn as a revenge-seeking vigilante is pretty much everyone and their mother’s reason for seeing this film. Marketing made THE FOREIGNER read no different from a TAKEN clone, road-tripping Chan from London to Belfast in search of his daughter’s killers. It’s a terrorist manhunt film starring a really pissed off demolitions expert. But 20 minutes into THE FOREIGNER you begin to realize that the film is quite a bit different from what was advertised. To a large degree, THE FOREIGNER is a film about diplomacy and double crossings, with Chan catalyzing the goings on through his no-nonsense bravura.
It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Chan’s got dramatic chops on top of his outstanding physicality. As a 63-year-old action star, it’s honestly amazing how well he handles himself on screen. But THE FOREIGNER is a political thriller first and an action movie second. Once you accept this, Campbell’s film is able to kick into high gear, but it’s an admittedly challenging psychological workaround. Seeing Chan on screen has come with countless comedic presumptions over the years. This becomes doubly difficult when you realize that Pierce Brosnan—who turns in one of the best performances of his career—is in many ways the most interesting person on screen.
MGS3: Snake Eater
But perhaps the most dubious setback in Campbell’s filmmaking is the decision to make Chan a Vietnamese immigrant. In many ways, it inversely negates much of the anti-racist rhetoric that the film is preaching. It’s rather brilliant that every character simply refers to Chan as “the Chinaman,” revealing their blind ignorance, but this falls apart meta-textually. Nobody in the audience attributes any nationality to Chan other than Chinese, and Campbell doesn’t do a particularly good job at making Chan’s nationality clear to us.
But I have to give credit where credit is due. If you remove our knowledge of Chan’s heritage from the film, there’s some really brilliant commentary going on here about the western world’s treatment of Asian people. Vietnamese immigrants run Chinese restaurants, former IRA terrorists refuse to fear the emasculated Asian lead, and the deadly conflict (despite everyone’s decision to focus their attention on a mourning father) squarely rests inside of the United Kingdom. The title gives this away too. Chan is far less of a foreigner than any member of the IRA; people who patently refuse to align with Britain. The fact that the British government is also presented in a negative light only further amplifies that Campbell isn’t picking sides in the conflict for Northern Irish independence.
The Gasman Cometh
Campbell’s film is one of identity, and how greatly our ethnic makeup determines how seriously we are taken: as men seeking justice, as lonely immigrants, as action stars. Yes, THE FOREIGNER is clumsily written, doesn’t quite satisfy the way it ought to, and ends with a literal bang, but not with an emotional one. And still, I can’t help but commend the effort put into subverting the War on Terror. It’s frustrating that the casting of Chan is at both times the films greatest calling card and its woke eyesore, but as a piece on post-Brexit Britain, populist movements, and the failure to unite people in an era of division, it’s excellent. There are no blockbusters that are this politically prescient, and though THE FOREIGNER might register as a little obtuse for American viewers, it’ll find some recognition within the United Kingdom.