The Foreigner gives Jackie Chan the opportunity to show his dramatic range.
Jackie Chan has made an illustrious career from portraying varying shades of the same on-screen persona. His Chaplin-esque everyman has been beloved through a number of films, all anchored by Chan’s incredible gifts as a martial artist and deeply human likability. The movies Chan has done stateside have all pressed this archetype towards its goofier tendencies, so The Foreigner is refreshing for giving him the opportunity to show his dramatic range.
Marketed like a late-period Liam Neeson thriller, The Foreigner stars Chan as Quan, a restaurant owner whose daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing incident in London. Naturally, he seeks out the men responsible, but is stonewalled by Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member who’s now a senior official in the Northern Irish government. Because the cell that did this identifies themselves as the IRA, Quan is convinced Hennessy knows who is responsible, but being a middle-aged Chinese man walking around Belfast, he’s not taken seriously. Of course, Quan is not just a carry-out operator with a grudge. He is a highly trained, ex-Special Forces operative skilled in hand-to-hand combat, bomb-making and other badass shit everyone wants to spend two hours watching Jackie Chan do.
The parts of the film indulging in that bloodlust are astonishing. Director Martin Campbell comes closer to capturing the majesty of Chan’s choreography than many of the American filmmakers who’ve tried over the years. While he doesn’t match the brilliance of Chan’s overseas work, he masterfully recontextualizes the skills we usually associate with Chan’s comedy work for a more visceral, brutal edge. The visuals are uniformly drab, with dreary lighting and a muted color palette, but the action itself is engrossing and rapturous.
In fight scenes, Quan can be overwhelmed and pushed to his limit the way Chan is, taking a lot of damage and building audience sympathy through masochistic bumps and hard hits. But he’s also so heavily underestimated by his opponents that he appears like a ghost, even being the focal point of a few legitimate jump scares throughout the film’s set pieces. It’s an exciting reinvention for a movie star we’ve seen so many times before, even in the scenes where he’s not leaping through windows and getting stabbed. Chan shows more pathos and subtlety than any role before, quietly commanding attention and giving so much with so little.
That’s because the screenplay, from Enemy of the State writer David Marconi, is barely interested in Quan. Adapted from Stephen Leather’s novel The Chinaman, the bulk of the film’s narrative follows Hennessy and the incestuous, political melodrama of Irish/English relations. It’s like someone took a perfectly-executed revenge thriller and serialized it between considerably less interesting interludes from a boring procedural populated by dubiously motivated caricatures and senseless plot twists. This film is entirely too pulpy to adequately tackle such heady material. Brosnan is a blast as a shifty, past-his-prime revolutionary whose duplicity and arrogance prove his own undoing, but there’s no real drama to be had from hunting and finding the bombers. It’s all over-the-top intrigue and backroom machinations, while Jackie Chan hides in the woods and detonates semtex.
If the film had Quan hunt for the bombers himself, instead of passive aggressively goading Hennessy into doing his job, it’d be a more purely exploitative thriller more becoming of the undulating synths Cliff Martinez’s original score pulses throughout the run time. Instead, it’s a made-for-TV-movie-level political drama punctuated by a far more exciting action picture. Jackie Chan is such an undeniable force though, that this may be a Taken style tipping point for the final act of his career. Lord knows we could use further iterations of this new persona with less arguing about parliament in the background.