The Foreigner (2017)
Martin Campbell has a good claim to being the best action movie director to work in English-language film in the 1990s and 2000s. In between his two signal James Bond reboots, GoldenEye (1995) and Casino Royale (2006), he also produced The Mask of Zorro (1997) and Vertical Limit (2000), rigorously-crafted hunks of big-budget fun. At a time when Hollywood’s action filmmaking was becomingly increasingly jittery and incoherent, Campbell wielded unflinching authority in creating sublime exercises in genre aesthetics with a visual style that managed that trickiest of tasks in seeming both dynamic and poised. Ironically, the New Zealand-born director stumbled into this forte, with his best-regarded work prior to his arrival as an action master being the bleak and soulful serial drama Edge of Darkness, produced for British television. Like many figures to emerge from the Australasian film scene in the 1970s, Campbell was obliged to become a nomadic practitioner of his art, finding a niche as a cameraman in Britain and then debuting as a director on low-budget sexploitation films in the mid-1970s. Campbell stuck purely to TV work after that for over a decade, becoming noted for sophisticated work like Reilly: The Ace of Spies and Edge of Darkness. Borne to Hollywood by the success of the latter, his first few movies there including Criminal Law (1989) and No Escape (1994) were unsuccessful, but the latter suggested he had some a way with action, and then GoldenEye finally made him an A-list director.
GoldenEye’s success signalled Campbell’s most vital trait, his ability to balance spry, stylish absurdity with a certain level of authentic feeling and attentiveness to context, as well as decorate proceedings with flourishes of throwaway humour and character business. His attempts to blend his serious-minded, British TV-schooled side with his entertainer gifts have generally proved interesting but also his least satisfying to date, on fare like Beyond Borders (2003). His attempt to transcribe Edge of Darkness into a big screen work with Mel Gibson in 2010 was fatally compromised by its star’s toxic reputation, and his return to franchise captaincy on Green Lantern (2011) proved a calamity. The Foreigner, his first feature since, proves another of Campbell’s attempts to blend his polar identities. Following in the footsteps of Liam Neeson’s various vehicles playing apparently mundane everymen who unleash certain skills upon evildoers, Campbell here provides Jackie Chan with a similar role in an adaptation of Stephen Leather’s novel The Chinaman, casting Chan as Quan Ngoc Minh, a China-born Vietnamese man who now lives and prospers as a restaurateur in London.
When his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) is killed in a terrorist bombing, the shell-shocked Quan sets out with quiet but purposeful fixation to track down and annihilate the perpetrators, using knowledge and abilities long honed on Americans during the Vietnam War. The gang who committed the act call themselves “The Authentic IRA,” and hole up in a London apartment sending out the occasional explosive declaration. Hearing a Northern Irish minister, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) decrying the act on TV despite his own roots as a militant, Quan begins relentlessly hounding Hennessy in his conviction he knows who performed the deed. Quan’s instincts prove canny, but the situation is far more complex than he can know. Hennessy asked his contacts in certain, still-armed radical groups to stage some terror attacks against bloodless targets in order to leverage some pardons for comrades still in hiding from the law, but some of his close colleagues have employed some blood-hungry young punks eager to enact both their own fantasies and also their elders’ long-stewing frustrations. Hennessy turns to his former soldier nephew Sean Morrison (Rory Fleck Byrne) to track Quan, who hides in the woods neighbouring Hennessy’s estate and stages occasional forays to blow up sundry buildings and vehicles, eventually wounding one of Hennessy's guardians. But Hennessy soon learns almost everyone close to him is playing their own game, including Sean and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady).
Rather than plying the crowd-pleasing tone of Neeson’s vehicles, where the star’s advancing age is conceded but also nullified rather than really exploited to flavour the drama, Campbell’s film proves a tangled, cruel, heavy-hearted affair, but also one that’s unexpectedly rich and peculiarly shaped. The Foreigner twists and turns with a sense of near-existential desperation in facing multiplying factions and proliferating complexities and treacheries, rather than cheer-along release. Its antihero chugs along in a state of cold, detached resolve that refuses to invite anyone into his sphere of mournful marauding, not expiating his grief through revenge but setting out simply to offer the closest thing to karmic redress. Campbell was chosen to direct GoldenEye probably because of Edge of Darkness’ grave, tough take on clandestine affairs and its portrait of a lonely man facing off against state power, a more cynical attitude to authority that helped provide a keynote for revising Bond’s role, long that of a force preventing power blocs from colliding, for a more unsettled time, fending off vengeful by-products of colonial and totalitarian systems, before becoming a more personally motivated revenger himself. This idea was the key to both of Campbell’s Bond movies and indeed came to inflect the zeitgeist in general. It’s also one Campbell modulated in The Mask of Zorro and Vertical Limit, where ageing heroes nursed ancient grievances whilst sending out younger avatars to do battle.
Here the younger avatars are either slaughtered or prove perfidious and overhyped, and the ageing warriors are left bereft of illusions or comfort. Tellingly, Campbell’s been trying to film Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees, one of the ultimate lion-in-winter tales, with Brosnan for a while now. Casting Chan in such a role seems a touch perverse, as that actor’s happy-go-lucky persona seems ill-matched for such grim business. But Chan actually plays perfectly into Campbell’s hands in telling a tale about the raw bastardry of getting old and being faced with impotence before crushing mortality, his once jovially handsome visage now increasingly dented and characterful. Campbell’s feel for effective physical detail and deployment of actor close-ups for dramatic effect is particularly well-illustrated when he pushes in to Chan’s face just after the bombing, studded with dozens of glass splinters, every one registering as an actualisation of the needling pain of realising everything he loved is now dead: Campbell is as attuned to Chan’s visage as a continent of experience as he was with Daniel Craig’s. Meanwhile Brosnan, the sexy swashbuckler Campbell made a superstar with GoldenEye, calls back to his founding role as the gimlet-eyed IRA killer in The Long Good Friday (1980) with grizzled beard and a challenge before him to prove he’s still got big enough cojones to hold his hard-won throne. The basic plot, of the bereft father’s hunt for justice by any means necessary, is certainly very familiar in contemporary thrillers, and the Irish Troubles motif seems even mouldier, but then again, part of the matter at hand is people who don’t know when their day is done and those whose lack of experience leads them to eagerly repeat mistakes of the past.
Campbell initiates Hennessy’s hemisphere of this tale with a seemingly obvious joke when the lady in bed with Hennessy, Maggie (Charlie Murphy), proves to be his mistress rather than his wife, whose phone call rips him out of his blissful little bubble. But the ramifications of the joke prove near-endlessly cruel to Hennessy’s pretences to maintaining power in two worlds, pulling strings on the radical fringe whilst parlaying with Prime Ministers. His hot young lover proves to be a member of the terrorist cell assigned to keep him stupefied and checked, whilst his wife manages them as an organ of her vengeance against all, including her husband, for various old sins and failings. Political muscle is explicitly rhymed to masculine potency, and then mocked. Efficiency and narrative leanness are usually ideals in this mode, but part of what makes The Foreigner a woozy, unbalanced experience but also a fascinatingly complex one lies in its refusal to simply be one thing. Campbell and screenwriter David Marconi chase various subplots and find whole, strange continents. Time is given to Sean’s lot as a used-up soldier in one struggle now doomed to be used up in another, engaged in a quasi-incestuous affair with his uncle’s wife, who conflates a variety of archetypes ranging from Phaedra to Lady Macbeth.
As well as keeping Hennessy on a leash, Maggie, whose real name is Sara McKay, seduces a journalist, Ian Wood (Rufus Jones) in order to make him an unwitting bomb-carrier, whilst complaining to her comrades about the seamy demands placed on her. Campbell dangles a kind of feminist deconstruction on the cliché figure of the honey trap, but twists it ruthlessly a few degrees further as she’s placed at the tender mercies of state authority, captured after being shot by Quan, tortured into giving up the whereabouts of her latest explosive device with battery wires attached to her nipples, before being casually executed. Diverse forms of arrogance in alternate forms of power, government and radical, meet on the intimate level of torture, and each prove wanting in their pretences. Hollow-hearted fanaticism grows old to become fatuously self-impressed mediator, a pretence Quan takes aim at. Fitting Campbell’s template of mirroring heroes caught between worldviews, the two men are defined by their shared status as a grimly committed battlers of occupying powers but separated by their attitudes to their lot, one become a purposefully inconsequential man and the other a potentate: Quan’s background trauma involved the death of his wife and two other daughters at the hands of pirates battled during escape from Vietnam, whilst the seed of murderous cross-purposes between the Hennessy involves Mary’s rage at her husband not dealing out hard street justice to a Loyalist who killed her brother.
Campbell plays out much of Hennessy’s part of the narrative in environs trucked in from his Bond films, wood-panelled offices and glistening showrooms of corporatized civic power where ironic transactions of bloodletting and tribal ritual unfold, Quan depositing a bomb in the toilet neighbouring Hennessy’s ministerial office, Hennessy meeting with his old cadre of glowering former fellow revolutionaries in a board room. The kinship of antagonists is repeatedly mooted through not merely Hennessy’s clash with Quan but also with Sean and his quarry as well as stern and unflinching high-level British cop, Bromley (Ray Fearon), who Hennessy sends Sean to for some backdoor negotiations; the two men are separated by communal loyalties but obliged to respect each-other as serious men. Country mansion drawing room becomes the scene of a brutal scene of provocation and execution. The woods beyond Hennessy’s estate represent an instantaneous plunge back into a primal zone where Sean and Quan are sent to do battle in a troglodytic scenario involving sharp knives and simple but effective traps. Campbell mostly throws away the neo-First Blood (1981) theme of Sean and Quan stalking each-other out in the man-killing parishes, and the film’s proliferation of supporting characters and their attendant priorities proves both enriching but also symptomatic of a storyline that can’t quite decide where to focus. Quan’s legacy of loss and his tentative relationship with his restaurant manager Lam (Tao Liu) are noted but not explored: Campbell’s far more interested in Hennessy and the various imps and demons hanging about him.
The busy dramatic landscape feels like a prestige television series cut down to feature length, with only Campbell’s cinematic heft holding off diffuseness. The film’s relatively few punctuating action scenes, including one with Chan battling off some of Hennessy’s thugs who track him down to a boarding house, are nonetheless displays of Campbell’s casual mastery of camera placement and cutting in staging combat. The climax, in which Quan finally infiltrates the terrorist cell’s hide-out and battles them, is a quietly masterful shard of action played out in a small space. Campbell utilises Chan’s still near-preternatural physical deftness in a scene that’s convincing both as a pay-off for Quan’s gifts as a bringer of death and mayhem and also as a realistic action sequence where Campbell’s gifts for precisely orchestrating chaotic happenings are showcased, where even the most skilled fighter can still be wrong-footed by the sheer speed of events. The Foreigner is a long way from being some sort of instant classic, but it certainly deserved better than its cursory reception upon release, as a welcome return for a master film artisan, and reminder of what a thriller made by and for grown-ups can look like.