‘The Foreigner’ Review: Jackie Chan Goes Grim and Gritty
The first thing that seems strange about The Foreigner is its title. Sure, Jackie Chan’s character is Chinese and he lives in London. But no one ever calls him “the foreigner.” Instead, most of the characters refer to him as “The Chinaman”; they call him that so much, in fact, that it feels like that could be the title, and would have been in an earlier age.
Sure enough, the end credits reveal the film is based on a novel called The Chinaman by Stephen Leather, and a quick Google search will tell you that this novel came out in 1992, information that makes some sense out of this puzzling thriller. It feels dated because it is dated, and its central drama is so bafflingly complicated because a real-world conflict from 25 years ago has been uncomfortable updated to the present day.
Leather’s novel, at least according to the synopsis I found online, is actually about a Vietnamese immigrant to the U.K. who swears revenge after his daughter is killed during an IRA bombing. When Leather wrote this book, the Troubles were still raging across the United Kingdom, and the premise was utterly plausible. But director Martin Campbell and screenwriter David Marconi have taken the basic concept and brought it forward into 2017, where they justify IRA bombings with a painfully convoluted storyline.
A group known as the “Authentic IRA” claim responsibility for the bomb that kills Chan’s character’s daughter. His Quan appears to be the humble owner of a Chinese restaurant. But when his daughter dies, and the police drag their feet trying to find a suspect, he takes the law into his own hands — and then he punches people with those hands, and kicks people as well, because despite his meek exterior, Quan’s mysterious past has given him a Rambo-like collection of survival, combat, and demolition skills.
When Quan learns that Pierce Brosnan’s Liam Hennessy has been assigned to the case — and that Hennessy has his own history with the IRA — Quan confronts him and demands the names of the men responsible for the bombing. When he refuses, Quan begins setting off warning bombs at Hennessy’s office, and then at his country home. What should be a fairly simple story about Jackie Chan beating the crap out of the dudes who killed his daughter, gets sidetracked in a story about British politics, labyrinthian conspiracies, and even incest.
Both leads have been cast against type; the manic and expressive Chan as the stoic and morose Quan; the former James Bond as an amoral politician. But the roles don’t play to either man’s strengths, and the balance between them is off. Chan is limited to just a handful of action scenes while Brosnan spends most of his scenes staring at fireplaces, drinking whiskey, and screaming “Jesus Christ!” while Quan evades his bumbling minions. It doesn’t sound on paper like an appealing combination, and it’s not any more engaging onscreen.
There could be a thoughtful film made of the moral complexities of guerrilla warfare and social inequality, but I’m not sure the place to do that is a grungy B-movie that includes a scene where Jackie Chan wipes out a squad of special forces soldiers by sneak-attacking them in the woods. I’m also not sure that Campbell, a skilled director of action pictures (including Brosnan’s best Bond outing, GoldenEye), is the right man for that job. He is the right man for a straight-up revenge picture starring Jackie Chan, but the movie gets too bogged down in palace intrigue to deliver enough thrills.
Quan may not be the most natural fit for Jackie Chan, but he is convincing as a man pushed too far. His diminutive stature and sad eyes also work well for a character whose outward appearance masks superheroic abilities. If only he got to flex them a little more, in a story that didn’t feel like it arrived a quarter century too late. The stuff involving Brosnan and his flimsy political future keeps taking up more and more time, pushing Chan further and further into the background. By the end, he feels like a foreigner in his own movie.