It’s been a while since we’ve seen Jackie Chan in US cinemas, especially as a lead, and I for one, am happy to have him back. Think on it for a moment: Jackie Chan is still one the world’s biggest stars (currently ranking fifth on Forbes list of highest paid actors), and ever since 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx, he’s been a mainstay in Hollywood, but I don’t think we’ve seen him in a major role since 2010’s The Karate Kid reboot (and he was not the star of that film). Sure, his voice has popped up in animated films like Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3, The Nutjob 2, and even The LEGO Ninjago Movie just this year, but his acting roles have been relegated back to China. And I say relegated in full jest as China’s box office is predicted to overtake Hollywood by 2021, and for most, acting in your native language is easier. However, Chan’s always aspired to be a global movie star, not just a Chinese or Hong Kong one, and he’d already made it.
This is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that for domestic audiences, denying them one of the world’s veritable superstars, and a self-made one at that, one who’s paid every due possible to pay to get to the top, and also one of the greatest action/martial arts stars the world’s ever known, is a shame. I’m happy there are minds outside Hollywood deciding which films to back financially, and although The Foreigner was produced by Chinese and British backers (including Chan himself, who owns Sparkle Roll Media), it did get a domestic distribution deal as Chan proves here that he’s got more to offer the world than doing his own stunts.
Director: Martin Campbell
Release Date: October 13, 2017
The Foreigner, a film based on the 1992 novel The Chinaman, by Stephen Leather, sets itself up quickly as father Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) picks his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) up from school and while taking her to buy a dress in London, reveals that even now, he’s perhaps a little bit protective of her. Indeed, even before the plot progresses, Chan’s baseline level of emoting is set at post-Botox-injection, slack-jawed worry. Then his daughter is summarily killed in an IRA bombing and Chan cranks up the dour to catatonic-psychosis as he finds inner woe the likes of which you rarely see on screen. Imagine you have nothing to live for, now personify this look and you’ve got Jackie Chan for roughly two hours. It’s mildly unsettling, seeing a man who’s defined his action (and concurrently his acting) career by his martial arts skills and his affable sense of humor, go this dark. And his visible aging, aging pronounced by his absence from domestic screens for the past 7 years and the fact that he’s not a kid anymore, enhances the emotional void that Chan crafts and then aims at the film’s would-be heroes and villains alike.
If you wanted to see Jackie Chan’s acting range by seeing the complete opposite of most everything you’ve likely seen him deliver, see The Foreigner. If you’ve come expecting another chapter in the aging actor shares their certain set of skills genre (Taken, John Wick, Death Wish, The Equalizer, etc.), you may want to tamper your expectations.
The Foreigner pits Chan’s Quan against Pierce Brosnan’s Liam Hnnessy, a former IRA shot-caller turned Irish politician as he tries to discover who’s responsible for his daughter’s death. Usually, these former military types only turn to taking action into their own hands when the system fails them, but here, the vengeful psychosis Quan aims at basically everyone seems driven more by a relentless need to personally kill the people responsible for his daughter’s death. What I mean is that, the Death Wish franchise has always been driven by the protagonist’s belief that the system can’t deal with the problem, or is failing to do so, so Paul Kersey becomes a vigilante to fill role vacated by the proper authorities. Usually, this is why vigilantes become vigilantes, but in this case, the film sets up not an inadequate government, but rather, a father who cannot wait for justice. What is Quan’s motivation to kill other human beings? It’s not that the government isn’t doing its job—it’s only been a couple of days.
In fact, the British government, its special forces, police forces, and investigators are portrayed to be effective investigators, deft maneuverers, and sensitive handlers to those dealing with extreme grief. It’s a credit to veteran director Martin Campbell who tackles the sensitive subject of terrorism (let’s forgo the term domestic terrorism) with skill, portraying it with realism and a sensitivity of his own. In fact, much of the government side of things seems like one of the more authentic portrayals of fighting a terrorist threat I’ve seen grace a fictional film. It delivers a brutal realism in how decisions would unfold in real-time while balancing that with a slight sensitivity to those who are the victims of terrorism’s senseless and graphic violence. Here, The Foreigner succeeds.
Where it fails is in balancing its two other moving parts: Chan & the IRA. When I said not to expect a Taken-derivative, much of this conclusion can be drawn from Chan’s absence from the screen. He’s absent a lot, and in his stead we get large chunks of Brosnan and his IRA associates, often philosophizing the internal workings of the IRA, its ambitions, and how best to carry them out. The film is heavy in politics and subplots amongst its villains, and it feels draining, at times, to endure it. Weren’t we here to watch Jackie Chan—either show he can still perform martial arts past 60 (he can), or that his acting range is much broader than I previously knew (it is—even if we don’t really get a breadth here—only a breadth by cumulative comparison)?
Chan is absent so much so, and the movie spends enough time focusing on the internal workings of the IRA, that one begins to wonder just who the moniker foreigner refers to: is it to Chan? After all, the book the film is based on was called The Chinaman and that outdated and mildly racist term certainly implies a foreignness. Or is the foreigner the focus of the Irish nationalists who feel as much of a divide with British denizens as they would with Chinese? No, I suspect it was just a less controversial title and the film is as unbalanced as it appears. It can’t be both an action-revenge tale and a serious look at terrorism / the IRA / or governmental responses to terrorism. The genres are too confused, and this confusion is palpable, as an audience member, when you find yourself wondering, OK—but why have we been in this IRA board room for five minutes? OR, OK—but where is Quan now? What’s he been busy with?
Some of you may be wondering why the IRA is even in this movie; they’re not a press-coverage-heavy group that seems to be relevant in our modern world—this despite the fact that the group and its factions are still active and committing acts of violence with regularity; in this post-9/11 world, terrorist focus has shifted to other more prominent directions. The 90s were rife with IRA driven films because the 90s were still very close to the height of violence that the IRA was responsible for. Twenty-five years after the book was released, this feels very dated, though its handled effectively in its motivational rationales. But combine it with the title, which is misguided—a downgrading from one insensitive moniker to another—and utterly unnecessary as The Father, Revenge, Justice, A Father’s Justice, The Man, The Soldier and more would have all been equally suitable, if not more so, and it feels off.
Other revenge and out for justice tales work well (when the do) is that they embrace what they are. Tragedy occurs, the audience understands the motivation, and roots for the hero to pile up bodies. Here, there’s little sense of satisfaction watching Chan, with sad-face on, take apart his overmatched opponents. The overtures of terrorism, real consequences for average people, torture, and government black ops add a realism that negates the escapism found in other films. It’s one thing to imagine what you’d do to people who wrong you, it’s another to act upon it.
Jackie Chan is superb—he does everything he can in this to portray a father with a long history of suffering (though the backstory is unnecessary here—something from the source material that should have just been cut). Pierce Brosnan seems to have studied fellow former-Bond star Timothy Dalton in American Outlaws, as an actor with brogue yelling angrily every time the upstart protagonists outwit him and his henchmen with their guerilla tactics.
While I really want to like this film and love that it attempts to handle serious topics seriously, all while wrapping them around a Taken-Rambo hybrid revenge tale, it just doesn’t work. No military official is going to say that his government owes a victim of terrorism something after that victim then enacts terrorism upon that same government. Here, you need to embrace realism, or embrace escapism, you can’t do both.
Second Opinion: Jackie Chan always has been and always will be a badass. The Foreigner proves that more than most of his English-language films because he is the sole reason that the film will be worth leaving on if it shows up on your TV someday down the line. Though he’s obviously better known for comedy, he turns out a perfectly fine performance as a grieving father who is actually ex-military and will wreck all kinds of shit in the name of vengeance. Watching the increasingly ridiculous lengths he goes to to enact his plans is genuinely fun, even if the film around him doesn’t deserve the badassery that he brings. There were probably other parts to the movie, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what any of them were. 6/10 — Alec Kubas-Meyer