The first trailer for The Foreigner was a perfect example of a studio getting exactly the reaction it wanted from fans. How could it not? The prospect of putting Jackie Chan in the Taken-esque role of a wronged, older man seeking revenge is plenty appealing. Pitting him against Pierce Brosnan would appear to be an inspired choice, as well. But The Foreigner isn’t exactly the “older fella kicking ass” romp that its trailers are trying to sell it as, and it’s instead a darker, more introspective movie than expected.
Jackie Chan is Quan, a devoted single father and business owner in his early 60s, whose teenage daughter ends up a casualty of a bombing perpetrated by a new wing of the IRA. The soft spoken Quan soon reaches out to Liam Hennessy (Brosnan) a former member of the IRA turned government official who is in the public eye denouncing the bombing and leading the investigation. Quan’s request is simple: he wants information on the bombers so he can take matters into his own hands. As you might expect, Hennessy isn’t in any hurry to give that kind of information to an elderly civilian, and things escalate from there.
And boy, do they ever escalate. Quan quickly goes from politely requesting the names of the perpetrators to a program of violent harassment of Hennessy and his cohorts, with an increasingly complicated array of traps and homemade devices. Clearly, Quan is more than he seems (we learn about his past as the rest of the characters do) and there’s a perverse amusement in watching Brosnan’s stoic Hennessy lose his cool with each increasingly painful intrusion.
While this is certainly a fun premise, it’s more fun in theory than in practice. The Foreigner feels like it’s more interested in being a straightforward thriller, weaving in questions about the simmering resentment surrounding the long term political implications of terrorism far more often than the action itself. This is admirable, so it’s kind of a shame that The Foreigner is such a chore. Based on the 1992 novel, The Chinaman, by Stephen Leather, David Marconi’s screenplay feels overwritten, full of some of the most dour, miserable characters you can imagine, from our “heroic” protagonist right down the line. Look, it’s a movie about IRA terrorism and a man who has lost everything looking for revenge. I’m not exactly expecting a lighthearted two hours to munch my popcorn. But when Quan is so stoic that it’s difficult to root for him, when the motivations of the actual villains are so willfully obscure, and when the movie itself occasionally seems to flirt with a “both sides” worldview, it’s frustrating.
Director Martin Campbell brought us one of the greatest James Bond movies of all time with Casino Royale and the joyful, thoroughly underrated piece of summer popcorn wonder that is The Mask of Zorro. Then again, he also inflicted Green Lantern on us. The Foreigner is Campbell’s first big screen directorial effort since that failed DC superhero movie, and it’s certainly better than that. But it’s also strangely clinical in its approach. With the exception of one frenetic close-quarters gun battle that will definitely get your heart racing, the action scenes feel a little sterile, even though there is some inventive brutality to be had.
Jackie Chan’s Quan dodders around, shoulders slumped, head down, speaking quietly, and he’s utterly believable as a broken man with a darker past than his kindly exterior hints at, which makes his proficiency in inflicting pain all the more fun. Even at 63, Chan can still make you believe when he’s going to town on someone, even if he’s not attempting any of the pure stunt fight insanity that brought him legendary status. And make no mistake, there’s definitely some joy in seeing Jackie Chan going head to head with Pierce Brosnan. But the mystery of how you can put two of the most effortlessly charismatic action heroes of a generation on screen together and not manage to conjure up any charm at all, let alone an ounce of sympathy for either of these supposedly layered characters, will haunt audiences far more than the movie itself.
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