Action movies are more than just car chases. In the debris of every explosion, we find answers to questions that form the crux of human society: Who is the enemy? Why do we fight them? What distinguishes them from us?
Historically, action movie tropes have evolved alongside American foreign policy and global trade relations. We once had the Godfather and bands of Italian mobsters. Then came Russian gangsters and spies. Now we’re boarding private jets to coolly futuristic Asian metropolises, shooting at each other from the glittering towers of Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Macau and sipping a cocktail in the hotel bar afterward.
We see this in “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift,” “Pacific Rim,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and more. Even less action-based thrillers jumpstart their plotlines with an injection of foreign travel, like “Contagion,” which began in a Hong Kong casino. “Skyfall,” one of the highest grossing films in the past few years, continues the James Bond legacy in a Shanghai skyscraper and the fictional Golden Dragon Casino in Macau.
For “Skyfall,” screenwriter John Logan explained that production deliberately sought out locations that were “in opposition” to London with an exotic quality that made them “places for Bond to be uncomfortable.”
But it’s not just Bond that’s uncomfortable. So is the audience, a presumed monolithic body of English-speaking, non-ethnic Westerners. It is this discomfort — this newness, foreignness — that creates the movie’s thrill. These cities are meant to be unfamiliar, harkening back to our most primal instinct to fear the unknown.
The dynamic is not limited to Asian cities alone. Action movie franchises take viewers all over the world, from Latin America to the Middle East, precisely because foreignness is inherently suspenseful. For Western audiences — particularly American ones — Asia has the stereotype of being perpetually foreign, taking the feeling of thrill even further.
Moreover, because the audience generally does not have first-person experience visiting international cities, screenwriters have the freedom of imagining whatever they want to fill that blank space. Asian cities, specifically, are tied to the image of high-tech futurism and consumerism, making them places where slick new gadgets, sly transactions, anything the mind can conjure up, flourish.
The setting is also about money, and characterizing protagonists along certain class lines. Notably, Bond doesn’t dally in the agricultural fields of Southeast Asia — those are reserved for stories of ancient treasures or war-related espionage. Instead, he only visits Asia’s economic powerhouses, and of those, only the cities that have the strongest trade relations with the US and the UK.
Here, his enemies are wealthy Asian businessmen or Western expats. His choice of associates — even in the villains he fights — is just one physical marker of Bond’s status as a sleek, cosmopolitan protagonist. He has his Armani suit, his Rolex and, now, the international network connecting him to pockets of power across the globe. He has both the financial means and the elite connections to jetset between London and New York, and now Shanghai and Macau. The plot is no longer just domestic. The more foreign backdrops the movie has, the grander the scale of the action, creating ever-higher stakes to indulge in.
There also is a real-world political and financial element in the trend of setting blockbuster action movies in Asia. Lately, Chinese investors have funneled a lot of money into Hollywood media companies, and Asia is a growing market for these action movies. The latest “Transformers” movie was heavily promoted in China and became the country’s highest grossing film at the time of release.
Some production companies respond to this new audience by creating special export versions of the film with after-edits making the storylines more relatable to Chinese viewers. It could be that now, writers are moving the entire stories to Asia — an artistic decision fueled by the global economic market.
But in practice, these international locations are used as nothing more than backdrops for (usually) American protagonists to play in. Instead of using the setting to shape the plot, it seems that it’s simply thrown in as an afterthought to add extra stimulation for audiences and production companies alike.
Since movies are a mirror reflection of society, it means we as viewers have an underlying mindset that enables this type of cinematic ethnocentrism. We should question why that mindset is so common and ask ourselves: are we making backdrops of foreign places in our own lives?