Ugly Vigilante Action Makes “The Foreigner” Troubling

Jackie Chan knows how to fight. He’s been doing it on screen since the 1960s and has created a style that is organic and beautiful. To watch a fight scene from a Jackie Chan movie is like watching a dance. To put him in a film like “The Foreigner” is like clubbing his legs. There are maybe three big fight scenes in this movie, each filled with harsh edits and a jerky, deceptive camera. They are also dark, oddly framed and just plain unpleasant to watch.


The movie instead focuses on Jackie making bombs and using machine guns to kill people. It’s not worth his time or ours to do this, and it doesn’t suit him. It robs him of his magnetism and forces him to be a man set on avenging his family, no matter what he has to do.


I think it’d be unfair to call Chan the star of this movie, and it actually would be more exciting and watchable if he was. More screen time is given to Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan plays an Irish politician with an IRA past who Chan terrorizes in the hope that Brosnan can give him the names of the IRA members who killed his daughter in a bombing. This seems to take a backseat to Brosnan’s political maneuvering, as he hopes for prisoner releases and deals with old IRA allies.


It’s all remarkably dull. The dialogue is a master class in cliches, and director Martin Campbell would clearly rather be filming something explode or someone get hit. This utterly pointless action is punctuated by Jackie bombing and attacking an increasingly frustrated Brosnan, in some dull cat and mouse game. This is not an action thriller. This is the pilot to a 1990s political drama that didn’t get picked up.


More interesting than the plot are the bizarre morals behind this movie. The hero is justified in any violence they commit to achieve vengeance. The families of the dead and injured they leave behind them are of no consequence. This is what we call terrorism. Chan is as much a terrorist as the IRA in this film. Perhaps more so because his only ideology is revenge for his daughter.


This twisted morality goes back to the myth that can be best seen in westerns of “good” and “bad” violence. Most westerns, and nearly all vigilante movies, have a structure: the antagonist (IRA, “thugs,” Indians) commits an act of “bad” violence; the protagonist (Jackie, Charles Bronson, John Wayne) tracks them down and then commits an act of “good” violence to get revenge. Other people and their needs and desires are not considered at all. The reactionary violence is justified simply because it happened after the first violence.


We can apply this formula to the institutional violence we see in this movie; the counterterrorist forces here violate civil liberties left and right and this is treated in the same way. It’s apparently okay to spy and it’s okay to kill anyone you want, because they did “bad” violence. This morality is troubling to me — in the real world and in movies.


Rating: 1.75/5

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