The Foreigner presents Jackie Chan in his most surprising of roles. We’ve become so used to him being the chipper and plucky martial artists, but now he’s a dour and cold-hearted man out for revenge. We’ve seen him use his extraordinary martial arts skills to subdue his attackers, but rarely to brutally murder them. Chan was always the hero, not the anti-hero. Now the master of his stunts finds himself in a film more gritty, bloody and brooding, taking on the revenging archetype from Death Wish and Taken. It’s not exactly a role that I felt Chan needed to play, but at least now we have proof he could do darker action.
What may surprise people is that despite the advertising for this movie, Chan is not the central focus of the story. He exists as an outsider and a chaotic force to a more prominent story of national security in the UK. There’s been a bombing in London, and a new form of the IRA is claiming responsibility for the carnage. England questions the former IRA member turned government official, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He says he doesn’t know anything about the bombing. Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan) doesn’t believe him, having lost his teenage daughter in the blast. He wants the names of the men who killed his girl, and he’s not taking “I don’t know” for an answer. And so begins Quan’s tormenting of Liam, stalking his affairs, bombing his farms and disabling his men. Not KILL his men, but disable them. He’s saving those brutal moves for the bombers.
Most of the movie isn’t about him, however, and for a good reason. Even when Liam investigates Quan and reveals his tragic past of losing other daughters and a wife, it’s still not as exciting or stirring as the political game at play. Liam does and doesn’t know about the bombing. Somebody in the Irish government has been orchestrating this. But even that person doesn’t know who the bombers are. Or does he? The attackers are all unrelated IRA fighters operating under secret code words. Or are they? The pot keeps stirring with betrayals, alliances, reveal, affairs and power struggles. All of it is tightly written to the point where if Chan weren’t included this would be a straight political drama.
When we do get to the action, it’s a little underwhelming for what we know he is capable of. He’s at his best when in enclosed spaces where he can wedge into any opening and use anything in his environment as a weapon. There’s a great scene at a bed and breakfast where he dashes up to the roof, slides down a pole and back into the building to beat up some more bad guys in the stairwell and kitchen. He will later sneak into a flat and do more battle in the kitchen with guns and knives. But most of the movie finds him hiding out in the woods, assaulting Liam’s farm as he efficiently subdues his pursuing men. I never saw Jackie Chan as being ex-military operative hunting men in the wild, but, again, he proved he could do it.
The story is more thriller than action picture considering how Jackie will disappear for long stretches of time to heal and coordinate his next attack. Most of the film is centered on Pierce chatting on the phone, screaming at his cohorts, shooting those that fail him and trying to keep his crumbling home life in order. There’s a high pace to the proceedings, and it never lingers too long on one scene or one reveal. But you can’t help shake the notion that this should be more of a Jackie Chan vehicle. The feels more fun and engaging when he drops by, only to switch gears harshly when the plot has to keep going. When Jackie finally corners Pierce with a gun, demanding names, there’s tension in the air. Then he states that he’ll give Pierce 24 hours to get him the names and my heart sank a bit as I knew he wouldn’t be showing up for a long time.
The Foreigner does its best to make its revenge plot, and some of it works. I like the dour atmosphere, but it’s perhaps too somber for the more amusing scenes where Jackie does his stunts. Try as he might, he just can’t shake our smiles and giggles whenever he becomes a master of his environment. Cliff Martinez supplies a moody soundtrack to get you in the right mindset, but he goes a little too overboard with the synth at times where it sounds like he’s composing the soundtrack for Nicolas Winding Refn’s TRON. There’s a steady pace that always kept me interested, but there’s an unshakable unevenness I just couldn’t let go. Considering it was based on a novel called The Chinaman, Martin Campbell has retooled enough of what I assume is a typical thriller into something a little more engaging. He still stumbles, however, with a script that has every government official even calling Jackie Chan that Chinaman, so there’s still a few kinks that he could have ironed out.