Walking into The Foreigner, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Most Jackie Chan movies I’ve seen–and thanks to my mother’s fondness for Chinese pop culture, there’ve been a few–rely on combining inventive stunt sequences with a cheerful, mostly innocent sort of comedy, a formula that’s carried over into his American work like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. But The Foreigner is not a comedy. Instead, it’s been described as more of a revenge film, which has certain generic connotations. So perhaps the most I can say is that I expected to see Chan leaping and flipping his way through scores of bad guys, making his way closer to some devilish and powerful figure. For better or worse, the film is not quite that either.
Calling it a revenge film is at least somewhat accurate. Chan plays a naturalized British citizen, Quan Ngoc Mihn, whose teenage daughter and sole surviving family member Fan (Katie Leung) becomes collateral damage in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening moments. Trained by US Special Forces when he left China during the Vietnam War, a desperate Quan turns his skill set to finding those responsible. He sets his sights squarely on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an Irish deputy minister in Belfast with ties to Sinn Féin and the IRA, a rogue cell of which has claimed responsibility for the attack. Hennessy, once a fiery activist, has become an aging and philandering politician put into an impossible position where his various conflicting loyalties are squeezed ever more tightly against one another by Quan’s intensifying pressure.
The film’s biggest problem is that it seems a little confused about its focus. Chan gets top billing as the protagonist but David Marconi’s script is clearly more interested in Hennessy and his conflicts. As such, Quan comes off a little stock and one-note, and is absent from the screen for long periods of time while the film probes–very broadly and without a great deal of new insight–into the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland and the effects of the peace process enacted in the late ’90s. The primary tension in the film comes from how much Hennessy actually knows about the bombing and how he reconciles his desire for peace with the ideals of his home and community. The change of title from Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman is telling in this regard–it’s more politically correct, sure, but it also becomes more ambiguous about whom it refers to: Hennessy is something of a foreigner to both the Irish nationalists who see him as a turncoat sucking up to the British for his own political gain and to his counterparts in London who’ll never forget the rebel he once was. This would be a fine basis for a political thriller if there weren’t an action movie about someone else trying to happen at the same time. But by trying to make room for both, neither is really developed as well as it should be.
This isn’t the fault of the actors, though. What depth Quan does have is almost entirely a product of Chan’s unusually reserved performance. The film is, of course, not without brazen stuntwork–the 63-year-old actor leaps off roofs, flings thugs around like rag dolls, and takes more than his share of lumps in the process–but its in the more staid moments where Quan’s weariness and emotional turbulence break through his icy exterior that both Chan and the film shine. Brosnan is also at what might be a career best, bubbling with tempered frustration over a situation where he can’t find any control; Olivier he’s not, but he’s more vulnerable and watchable than I’ve ever seen him.
For his part, director Martin Campbell–helmer of a couple of the better (but not the best) recent Bond films–turns in a fairly by-the-numbers style for a modern thriller, all chilly, washed-out greys with a serious, droning soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but it feels like a missed opportunity–a less neutral style might’ve elevated the uneven screenplay. As it stands, the detachment makes the film a little hard to read. There’s the suggestion of a thematic connection between Quan’s surprisingly restrained quest for justice (“bad guys”–to the extent that term applies–are incapacitated with often clever brutality but not actually killed) and the violence of the IRA, which might’ve tied the film more together, but it never really goes there narratively or cinematically.
So perhaps it’s best to approach The Foreigner with tempered expectations. It succeeds as a late-career experiment for Chan who’s increasingly expanding his dramatic range in recent years. It’s also an atypical entry in an oft overwrought genre, mostly eschewing straightforward action for a more cloak-and-dagger style approach. But it doesn’t really synthesize its various elements into complete coherence and ends up a little more forgettable than its ambitions. It’s not bad, but it’s not great either.