Friday, October 27, 2017

The Foreigner

If you are a Jackie Chan fan - and maybe even if you are not - you will like The Foreigner. It's a compelling story in the tradition of Taken. A father has lost his daughter, and he will do anything to bring the perpetrators to justice. From the shocking act of terrorism at the beginning to the end the audience knows is coming, the film keeps us engaged and (generally speaking) rooting for the right people for the right reasons.

There are several interesting elements to the story that deserve some serious thought. Pierce Brosnan's character (Liam Hennessy) is a morally compromised man trying to do the right thing for morally ambiguous reasons. He would be a great case study for an ethics class. Several affairs show what happens to individuals and situations when sex, which is meant to be an expression of love, becomes a weapon. As much as I am interested in pursuing those thoughts more deeply at some point, I am currently more interested in something that stood out to me in relation to Jackie Chan's character, Quan Minh.

Spoiler alert: Mihn's daughter, his last remaining family member, is killed in a terrorist attack. When he concludes that the British police will not bring the attackers to justice, he decides to track them down and get his revenge. In some ways, he embodies about the best you can hope for in a vigilante. Though there is a lot of violence, it's targeted against specific people, and he never kills anyone who is not part of the group on which he has set his sights. He constantly gives an opportunity for his vendetta to end. He shows mercy when he can. In the end, he finds those for whom he has been searching. As you might expect, it does not end well for them.

But the truth is that Mihn achieves nothing that the British police would not have done. He spends the whole movie seeking revenge with his Liam Neeson-esque 'particular set of skills,' but in the end it doesn't really matter. When he interjects himself into the meticulously planned police bust at the movie's climax, he kills a group that would have at minimum been arrested and jailed and at maximum been killed by the British and endangers an innocent person's life in the process. In hindsight, there were several other situations where innocent people could easily have been killed,'s Jackie Chan, and we knew it would work out okay for her. Does that make it right?

The reality is that justice was about to be served, and nothing Mihn did in the entire movie contributed to this. The pressure Hennessy felt to give him the names of the bombers was a parallel plot line to the pressure the British police and Hennessy's IRA contacts were putting on him. He gave the British the perpetrators' names for reasons that had nothing to do with Mihn's relentless pressure. Chan's vigilante vendetta was a side story to actual justice taking place. Just because he couldn't see it didn't mean it wasn't happening.

This is why a story that resonated in me as a father (and as someone who longs to see evil deeds justly punished) struck me as absurdist in the end. Mihn could have simply waited and grieved, and the wheels of justice would have turned completely, albeit slowly. Mihn's pursuit of revenge had no meaning other than the meaning he ascribed to it and the meaning it brought him. That is a far cry from saying it was a good thing, or that his commitment reveals him to be a good man. Yes, a good father's love for his children is deep beyond measure - but it dare not be unhooked from broader questions of justice.

Don't get me wrong: the movie was compelling. There is something deeply resonant about a father who will do anything to make those who hurt his children pay for their crimes. God knows I don't want to ever be in that position not just for reasons of grief but because I wonder how deep my anger goes. But I also walked away hoping that I never lose sight of the value of the structures of justice that exist to provide safeguards in which our passions can be directed. We can cheer in this movie because Mihn has the kind of moral fiber that constrains his actions, but what happens if this becomes the standard for all? I have to pull from Kant on this one: would we want everyone to do this?

My answer is "no." Yeah, it's kind of cool for superheroes to do it, but most of the most recent retellings of their vigilante stories don't shy away from the chaos that often follows in their wake. If you've seen the Marvel series on Netflix or watched the latest Spider Man movie, you will know what I mean.

Love, justice, mercy, passion, rules - somehow they must all work together if the world is to work. The Foreigner shows the best case scenario: a virtuous man whose moral compass helps him to achieve good ends with as-good-as-can-be-expected means in the midst of a morally dubious vendetta.

Which means, other than the virtuous part, he's not that different from Hennessy.

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