Saturday, February 10, 2018

Movie Reviews: The Foreigner, Devil's Gate

The Foreigner
directed by Martin Campbell
Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have f***** with? … That's me.

There are several older man takes revenge flicks, some good, some not so good. Years ago Liam Neeson reinvigorated the genre with Taken. In that movie we saw Neeson's secret agent with a very particular set of skills open up a can of whup-a$$ on people foolish enough to kidnap and threaten his daughter. Denzel Washington riffed on this theme in Man on Fire and The Equalizer. Michael Caine did the same in Harry Brown. Gran Torino (quoted abovesaw Clint Eastwood deconstruct this trope. Mel Gibson explored this genre with Blood Father and Edge of Darkness. You could even argue that no matter what role he's playing Bruce Willis is never too far from this trope. 

There is an ongoing cinematic desire for patriarchal protection and revenge, regardless of real life society moving away from that. People often like to think that they are worthy of such protection or alternately that they are capable of providing protection or revenge for those they love. The Foreigner is a worthy entry into this crowded field. It's not the best. It's not the worst. It is different for at least two reasons.

The first is that The Foreigner is a dramatic turn by actor and martial artist Jackie Chan. Chan is not making any jokes in this drama. Chan has no reason to laugh. The second reason that this movie is different is that it partially steps away from the cardboard cutout bad guys who usually provide the cannon fodder for the vengeful father as he fights his way up the ladder to the Big Bad. It's not just a mindless action film, not that there's anything wrong with a mindless action film, thank you very much.  It's just that this is not that. If you would otherwise avoid action films you might want to give this one a look see. It skillfully uses tension and release to maintain viewer interest in the story. Brosnan and Chan played well off of each other.

The Foreigner reminds us that everyone is the hero of their own story. Here, some people who commit or order violent acts have understandable or even laudatory reasons for doing so from their point of view. They aren't just sadistic bloodthirsty people. Other people have more personal or corrupt reasons. In short everyone is recognizably human, with the various mixes of good and evil, lust and piety, fear and courage that we all have. In every conflict in human history every belligerent side had its mad dogs, people who enjoyed hurting and killing other human beings. But the psychos are never the most numerous people. They don't do the majority of the killing. 

The people who do the most damage in war are people just like you or me, average everyday people who can via training or harsh personal experiences, temporarily turn off their humanity and do horrible things in service to a greater purpose. War may be hell. It may be evil. But sometimes it can also be the best of a number of bad options. There is a famous picture of a German civilian woman coming out of hiding after an WW2 Allied aerial bombing. I think her home was destroyed. I'm not sure if it was the British or the Americans who carried out the attack or which city it was. I think it was Mannheim. 

It's not really important. The point is that normally most people would be sympathetic to someone who went thru such a horrific experience. But in war the whole idea is that you are not sympathetic to the other side.  You cheer for people doing terrible things because they're your people. War blinds us to the other side's humanity.

Some of the men who dropped bombs on that woman and killed hundreds or thousands of her fellow countrymen flew back to their base and were feted as heroes. They likely did the same thing the next day or the next week. They probably didn't think too much about the unfortunate civilians they blew up or incinerated. It's unlikely that many Allied pilots fretted over the men, women and children killed by mass suffocation in firestorms or ripped to shreds of bloody flesh by flying fragments of bricks, glass and steel. That's what war is. If I had been unfortunate enough to have been in a concentration camp when that woman was bombed I would no doubt have cheered, probably just as that woman cheered her leaders when they invaded Poland. It didn't look like she was too happy to have war brought to her doorstep. Instant karma sometimes does get us as John Lennon mused. 

The Foreigner reminds us that there is a cost to that, even as we root for righteous revenge. Mr. Quan (Jackie Chan) is a Vietnamese born ethnic Chinese British man who makes his living as a London restaurant owner. Quan dotes on his remaining daughter. His wife and other children are deceased. When Quan drops his daughter off at a bookstore he doesn't know that that will be the last time he sees her alive. Renegade IRA terrorists bomb the bookstore wounding Quan and killing his daughter along with several other innocent civilians. Now Quan doesn't care if he lives or dies. He only wants his daughter's killers to be brought to justice.

Quan pesters the intense Commander Bromley (Ray Fearon), Scotland Yard's counter terrorism head, even offering a bribe to attempt to make Bromley find something. Bromley is already going above and beyond, but has pity on Quan. Bromley gently explains to Quan that bothering the police every day won't help. Attempted bribery will make matters worse. Go home and let the professionals do their job. But Quan can't leave things alone. When Quan sees Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a Northern Ireland political leader and former IRA member, (think Gerry Adams) speak on television to condemn the bombing, Quan decides that Hennessy must know something. He travels to Belfast to speak with Hennessy. Hennessy claims to know nothing and to sympathize with Quan's loss. However Quan doesn't believe Hennessy. 

The single minded and morally unfettered Quan decides that Hennessy is the key to finding the bombers. Quan takes steps to convince Hennessy that Quan is serious. It soon becomes painfully apparent to Hennessy and his protectors that Quan has talents that are atypical among aging restaurant owners. Quan is something else entirely. But Hennessy is a former hard man himself and not one who responds well to threats.
I appreciated the mix of motives. Everyone has different goals, which they are prepared to reach by fair means or foul. The bombing strains Hennessy's relationships with his wife Mary (Orla Brady) and his primary British political contact MP Katherine Davies (Lia Williams). Both women are motivated characters with their own interests, which don't necessarily coincide with Hennessy's. Both Quan and Hennessy are in the dark on things. This film was a competent thriller with a good mix of conflict, mystery and suspense. Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) is suitably creepy as Hennessy's primary troubleshooter. Every time he speaks I have Red Wedding flashbacks. The Foreigner looks good. The picture definition is crisp. The sound levels were good, not overwhelming. The Northern Irish and English accents weren't that difficult for me to understand, something that is not always the case. 

The film ran just under two hours. I never felt that the story dragged. Although like Neeson, Chan's age makes it more difficult to suspend disbelief when it comes to his physical combat abilities, the writing was smart about this. Quan is a great believer in preparation, reconnaissance and surprise. These traits give him an advantage in his quest for justice.
Hennessy: You have no idea who you're dealing with!
Quan: Yes, I do. Do you?


Devil's Gate
directed by Clay Staub
This low budget horror movie feels Lovecraft inspired. It had the isolated country house, a rustic homeowner who's gone slightly mad, hints of human sacrifice and things that humans simply aren't meant to understand. The issue is that in the written page Lovecraft could get a whole lot from implication and telling rather than showing. He could spend half of a story setting up a mood. Visually however, sooner or later you have to show things. This movie was very good in its beginning third. It became mediocre in its middle and completely ran out of gas during its ending.  Devil's Gate gamely mixes genres from police procedural to crazy rustic inbreds run amok to supernatural horror. But it doesn't really settle down comfortably into any of them.

FBI Agent Daria Francis (Amanda Schull) arrives in Devil's Gate, North Dakota to pursue leads on a missing woman and child. She's a no-nonsense feminist type who doesn't want to take any guff from any men, particularly hayseed rubes like Sheriff Gruenwell (Jonathan Frakes) who appears to be less than overwhelmed by Federal authority, particularly when it comes wrapped in a feminine package. 

Although in Francis' opinion the best place to start with a missing wife and child is always with the husband, the Sheriff dismisses her suspicion and all but orders her to stay away from the husband, Jackson (Milo Ventimiglia). And though he can't legally tell a Federal agent what to do the Sheriff definitely can and does order his deputy Colt Salter (Shawn Ashmore), charged with driving Agent Francis around, to stay away from the Jackson ranch. 

Well you know a woman like Agent Francis isn't going to react well to some man telling her what to do. It isn't long before she's convinced Salter to drive her out to the ranch so so they can ask Jackson a few questions. The audience can see before the duo's arrival that Jackson is a few fries short of a happy meal. He's booby trapped his home and the areas around it. He's got cutlery and glass cups hanging around his home. Are these rudimentary wind chimes or early warning alarms? Most ominously Jackson has something locked in a fortified basement cell, something he rants and raves at, at all hours of the night. Now you might wonder what sort of man has a cell in his basement and what sort of woman would marry such a man. Well the secret turns out to be something a bit more disturbing than any consensual sex play between husband and wife in the privacy of their own basement.

The special effects in this film are to put it charitably, bad. This movie was okay for as long as it hinted at what was going on but the more it showed the worse it became. Ventimiglia gives a one note performance that grated on me after a while. Schull wasn't much better. As is common in films such as these, people do stupid things to keep the plot moving. Worse, there are tons of writer contrivances to do the same, including the hoary old "Our cell phones all stopped working so let's continue doing something dangerous without being able to call for help!". I write a lot about enjoyable cheaply made Saturday afternoon movies that have vim and vigor despite a low budget and less than B-list actors. This didn't even meet that cut-off.
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