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THE FOREIGNER: A Dark & Offbeat Vehicle For Superstar Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan is in peak form in The Foreigner, and handily wins you over despite the film's dated source material.

THE FOREIGNER: A Dark & Offbeat Vehicle For Superstar Jackie Chan

The Foreigner is almost certainly not what audiences are expecting. This dark revenge drama boasts Hong Kong martial arts superstar Jackie Chan and four-time James Bond Pierce Brosnan in an espionage and terrorism-themed drama, helmed by two-time Bond director Martin Campbell. That pedigree is going to have audiences expecting action. They’ll get it, but make no mistake – this dark and often somber drama is not Police Story, Supercop, First Strike, Rush Hour, The Accidental Spy, The Spy Next Door or Shanghai Knights. This plot-heavy terrorist-and-counter-terrorist yarn aspires to be a LeCarré-type of intellectual spy thriller that revolves more around the hidden agendas and allegiances of its main characters than the action set pieces of, say, a typical James Bond movie.

While it doesn’t quite have the gray cells to completely pull that off, David Marconi’s screenplay, based on the novel The Chinaman by Stephen Leather, does provide an entertaining and fast-moving story that effectively keeps the audience guessing.

THE FOREIGNER: A Dark & Offbeat Vehicle For Superstar Jackie Chan

source: STX Entertainment

The sixty-three year old Chan, who also executive produced the movie, plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a soft-spoken, widowed London restaurateur who is largely devoted to the care of his thoroughly Westernized daughter. The Foreigner provides Chan a rare opportunity to emote before shifting into more conventional Liam Neeson territory. Quan picks up his teenage daughter from her London school and drives her to a local dress shop, where she is suddenly killed in an IRA-linked terrorist bombing.

The authorities, including Brosnan’s ex-IRA deputy minister, Liam Hennessy, seem slow to react, leading Quan to show up at the London police station, where he attempts to bribe the lead investigator (Ray Fearon) to give him the names of those responsible. When that fails, he turns to Hennessy, whom he correctly assumes can lead him directly to the culprits. Hennessy also declines to help, and not to his credit, is more condescending than his London counterparts.

“You will change your mind,” Quan says, quietly.  

A different sort of role for Jackie Chan

This is a different sort of role for Jackie Chan, and he makes the most of it. Chan actually turns in a layered, nuanced performance here, largely delivered in a minor key. The world-famous impish smile is not on display, and that may be startling to audiences used to Chan as the less serious, sunnier alternative to the usually deadly serious Bruce Lee, whom Chan was supposed to succeed. This is by far the most dramatic role Chan has ever tackled, and he plays it with an internal intensity and raw (but quiet) emotional power. His humble demeanor here borders on obsequious and inevitably leads everyone he deals with to underestimate him.

But this is just Clark Kent’s glasses, and it’s part of the fun for the audience, who (rightly) assume that sooner or later Chan will reach into his accustomed bag of martial arts tricks and kick someone’s ass. The Clark Kent tactic works pretty well, although Chan, like his character Quan, is in his sixties. Quan is dangerous, not invincible, and the action scenes are meant to be more believable than in many of Chan’s more acrobatic Hong Kong entries. Throughout, Chan lets us see the pain coursing through the face and body of the grieving father who knows revenge won’t bring back his daughter, but is nonetheless set on an unalterable course.

Quan, we are not surprised to learn, has been trained by US Special Forces and is an expert with weapons, hand-to-hand combat and living off the land á la Rambo. In fact, an extended cat and mouse pursuit in the Irish woods evokes, whether intentionally or not, a similar sequence in First Blood, the first Rambo movie (perhaps at least partly because of the similarity in Irish and Pacific Northwest climates).

The Foreigner certainly benefits from Chan’s undoubted ability, expertise and experience in martial art-heavy action sequences. He has never relied on CGI and doesn’t now, leaving that sort of thing to the young whippersnappers who think the video game look of most modern action sequences competes with stunt work – the wimps.

Pierce Brosnan doesn’t age, but reinvents himself

THE FOREIGNER: A Dark & Offbeat Vehicle For Superstar Jackie Chan

source: STX Entertainment

Brosnan, no longer graying but gray, looks startlingly Hemingway-esque with a grizzled beard. The man doesn’t age though – he keeps reinventing himself. He actually has more screen time than Chan here, despite his second billing, and Hennessy is actually is a more complex and interesting character than Quan. His motives and agenda are a little unclear, even by the time the end credits roll, and that sort of ambiguity may be frustrating to audiences. Brosnan is believable and effective as the morally ambiguous Hennessy, though why he needed a dialect coach (one is billed) for his native accent is a mystery.

Is picking on the IRA dated?

Picking on the IRA frankly seems a little dated, and in fact the novel the movie is based on, the less politically correctly titled The Chinaman by popular British thriller novelist Stephen Leather, was written in 1992, some five years before the IRA ceasefire. A quarter of a century later, with ISIS bombings and vehicle-on-crowd assaults a regular reality for Londoners, there’s something about the premise here that doesn’t quite ring true.

There is a sense, though, that this movie, largely financed with Chinese money, is more than a little conscious of a long and embarrassing tradition in Western movies of racism towards Asians. The recent No Escape, which also featured Pierce Brosnan, comes to mind as a glaring example, with dark-skinned, nameless Asian bad guys behaving in the most unreasonable, mindless and savage ways possible from beginning to end. This bodice-ripping of white women by slavering, sadistic Asian heavies should have gone the way of the old Yellow Peril pulp magazines decades ago, and The Foreigner, at least, flips that script decisively. Perhaps the producers were tired of seeing Middle Easterners trying to murder Caucasians.

Well-made mayhem

THE FOREIGNER: A Dark & Offbeat Vehicle For Superstar Jackie Chan

source: STX Entertainment

Nonetheless, director Martin Campbell keeps the mayhem moving at a brisk pace and generates some genuine suspense when it matters. Campbell, a New Zealander, is one of those remarkably self assured directors who doesn’t make rookie mistakes. His Bond movies, Brosnan’s debut in the role, GoldenEye, and Daniel Craig’s, Casino Royale, are two of the high water marks in the series. Edge of Darkness, which he directed based on a British TV show he also directed, is a gritty, taut crime drama with some genuinely startling action. And anticipating the fanboy naysayers, Green Lantern wasn’t his fault.

Shot by British director of photography David Tattersall, this is a handsome looking movie, though Campbell and Tattersall periodically add a touch of cell phone video verisimilitude to the action scenes. Screenwriter Marconi, the only American with a prominent role in the production, has written a literate, if occasionally overly confusing, script, with enough plot twists and turns to satisfy espionage fans.

The Foreigner: Conclusion

If the IRA premise seems creaky, and it does, it’s still worthwhile to see this exceptionally well-made if somber thriller. And the old school, practical stunt work is a treat. Ultimately though, this is a showcase for a retirement age Chan, who clearly has no designs on retirement (Rush Hour 4 is in development.) He may be nearly old enough to collect social security, but Jackie Chan is still the man.

What is your favorite Jackie Chan film?

The Foreigner is out now in theaters in the US, and will be released in the UK at a later date. For international release dates, click here.

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Jim Dixon retired from practicing law not a moment too soon, and now works as a freelance writer and film critic. A lifelong and unrepentant movie geek, he firmly believes that everything you need to know in life you can learn at the movies. He lives in upstate New York.

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