The Foreigner (2017) explained: bad guys and cursed women

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

Why is Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan action movie The Foreigner so hard on its female characters?

What is The Foreigner about?

When his daughter is murdered by terrorists, restaurateur Quan (Jackie Chan) is determined to bring the killers to justice.

Convinced an Irish government official with IRA ties knows more than he’s letting on, Quan takes the fight to the terrorists – and is plunged into a violent world of subterfuge and betrayal.

Sowing the seeds of revenge

The Foreigner is a genre mash-up. It’s a vehicle for Chan’s hypnotically fluid martial arts, but wrapped in a noir political thriller.

This works pretty well, with each genre fleshing out the other. It brings emotional depth and intrigue to the action, and a moral complexity to the political narrative.

The film also sits in the canon of ‘dad revenge’ movies, i.e., an older man takes on injustice, fights for his family, or battles grief. Whichever it is, fists, guns and improvised weapons are key to coming out on top.

The trigger for Quan is the murder of his only surviving daughter, Fan. However, flashback scenes suggest he’s also due revenge for horrific things done to his family in the past.

This means the female body count is high before the film even gets going, with Quan’s wife and daughters all dead.

We’re left in no doubt who to blame for this. Terrorists (mostly male) and double-dealing politicians (again, mostly male).

If this sounds down on men, remember this is an action movie, which implies action, both good and bad by men. But what does that mean for the film’s storytelling?

The accidental assassin

The clash of these extremes of masculine action – injustice and retribution – is what drives the plot (and the plots of many other films, to be fair).

  1. The terrorists kill bystanders to get what they want. The politicians aren’t any better. Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) is himself also a terrorist. Later, we’ll see the police use similar tactics as well.
  2. Then there’s Quan, who wants to live a quiet life – until his daughter’s death forces him to take a stand. However note that Quan mostly wounds rather than annihilators, at least until meeting his daughter’s killers. This separates him from the terrorists. It also means there’s a force of good (a hero) to balance the villains.

Similarly, John Wick just wants to mourn his wife and pet his dog but is continually forced back into the killing game. His story also mirrors The Equalizer’s Robert McCall (minus the dog).

Hero assassins, as opposed to plain-dealing sociopaths, need this kind of grounding. Otherwise, why should the viewer care about them? We’re given the sense that these people want desperately to live like us but circumstances won’t let them.

And, just as importantly, that we could be like them if ever faced with the same terror and tragedy.

It’s the quirky circle in cinema storytelling: we complete the killers and they complete us. And together, that makes for a satisfying story.

Other underdogs in cinema:

What about women?

If action movies imply action by men, genre rules impose passiveness on female characters in turn. They receive the action (sex or death, usually), or act from the margins, for instance by using manipulation or betrayal.

There are films that subvert these rules, of course. In doing so, there’s the potential for radically novel and inventive stories – Tarantino’s Kill Bill, for example.

But the default rules pan out poorly for The Foreigner’s female characters.

Quan’s wife and daughters die, most of them murdered by men. Later, so do female terrorist Maggie and Hennessy’s wife Mary.

We accept these rules of cinema just as we accept them in society, as necessary parts of the storytelling mechanism.

We accept that quiet men like Quan or John Wick or Robert McCall turn into killers when weaker characters (women, children, dogs) are attacked, just as we accept Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when provoked.

Moreover, when women are killed in movies, it’s often to give the male characters an inciting incident or backstory. Their deaths serve to make the men more interesting.

This is pretty bleak, to be fair. And yet the Foreigner reveals a bigger issue with women.

What happens to Maggie and Mary?

Having sown the seeds of revenge, the film ends with retribution and resolution (and, of course, love).

The terrorists are dead. Hennessy is trapped by a web of his own deceit. The police stop the last bomb just in time, saving countless lives. And yet, the film ends with a coda of cruel consequences.

Quan bumps off each of the terrorists in their apartment hideaway, but Maggie survives. Or at least, she does until the police arrive. They torture her until she reveals the location of the last bomb. Then they execute her.

In narrative terms, of course terrorists die. Whether through death or imprisonment, their fates must resolve the tension, injustice and grief contained in the story. And yet Maggie’s death is disproportionate compared to her male compatriots.

This mirrors what happens to her double in the plot, too. The police kill Maggie to tidy up loose ends. Hennessy executes Mary for the same reason.

The tyranny of women

Mary Hennessy is Liam’s wife. But he has a second ‘wife’ in mistress Maggie. That’s terrorist Maggie. Awkward.

As in The Departed, this sets up a nice mirroring. We have two Ms – Mary and Maggie. Both are love interests of Liam Hennessy, i.e., they stand in for each other in bed.

Crucially, both then betray him, and other men, sexually. Maggie uses journalist Ian to plant a bomb on a plane, while Mary is sleeping with Liam’s nephew (and using him to plot against Hennessy).

It doesn’t even matter that Mary is repaying multiple betrayals by Hennessy, including his infidelity and the death of her brother years earlier.

As in society more broadly, female sexual freedom and double-dealing is taboo. And both women pay for it.

This is why there are disturbing sexual overtones to Maggie’s torture. Similarly, Mary is specifically murdered by her lover, Sean.

This is intended as a fiendish punishment on the both of them but again, his fate is less brutal than that doled out to the women.

Thankfully not all of the female characters are doomed. The film ends with Quan and colleague Lam embracing, her care for him finally reciprocated.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s Lam’s chastity and domestic stability that’s being rewarded. Unlike the other women, Lam stands by her man, and cares for (as well as about) him.

Secondly, she’s yet another replica wife – this time for Quan rather than Hennessy.

Who is the foreigner?

The film, like Stephen Leather’s source novel, The Chinaman, has an interesting take on foreignness, not least in its use of the racist term.

The epithet is used against Quan when he gets under the skin of the film’s antagonists. It also represents Quan’s invisibility.

Immigrants often go unnoticed and unseen except in cheap stereotypes, or when politically useful.

Quan flips this into a super power, using his invisibility to enact bloody revenge.

Later, Quan flips this into a super power, using his invisibility to enact bloody revenge. The killers don’t see him coming, can’t track him in the wild, and can’t keep hold of him when he comes to them.

But is he a foreigner? Quan has lived in the UK long enough to establish a restaurant and settle his daughter. He’s ‘The foreigner’ in the same way that he’s ‘The Chinaman’: discriminated against by difference, written off, unseen.

In other words, the film’s title is presumably a more palatable take on the novel’s, yet represents the same things.

Moreover, it doesn’t always matter how much immigrants – like Quan – integrate or contribute. Discrimination, racial injustice and invisibility are hard to shake off.

While Quan resolves these tensions through retribution, the same can’t be said of the film’s female characters.

Male actors continue to be cast as action leads well beyond the age many women drop out of sight (socially as well as cinematically). See the Mission: Impossible and Indiana Jones franchises, and just about anything starring Liam Neeson.

Of course, films can only tackle so many realities at once. And they rarely, if ever, bring such complex social issues to neat conclusions.

The Foreigner may take a stab at this for its avenging hero, yet draws the line on breaking taboos and stereotypes of female agency.


The Foreigner (2017), directed by Martin Campbell

Other films similar to The Foreigner
  • The Equalizer, The Commuter (older men, action, revenge)
  • Pulp Fiction (women, action, revenge)
  • Police Story (Jackie Chan – early martial arts)
  • The Ghostwriter (Pierce Brosnan – political thriller)

Picture credit: Meiying Ng