Rating: A really good B+
Synopsis: A man seeks revenge after his daughter is killed in a terrorist attack, starting with a politician with past ties to the IRA.
The Foreigner is a political thriller directed by Martin Campbell, starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, and Michael McElhatton*. I’d like to emphasize the word “political” here- for a movie starring Chon Wang and James Bond, there’s a little bit more talking than implied, but with some satisfying fight scenes dotted all in between.
There are two major storylines here. After a terrorist attack kills his daughter, restaurant owner Quan (Chan) becomes obsessed with finding the people responsible. He targets Ireland’s Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Brosnan) after a television interview reveals Hennessy’s IRA roots. After asking Hennessy for names of the attackers and receiving no answers, Quan decides to show that he’s serious about bringing the killers to justice. On the other side, Hennessy is working on his own political agenda and the attack is merely a blip on the map for his bigger plans. Along the way, political intentions are revealed, alliances shift, and things blow up. Oh, and Quan was in the Special Forces. For the Americans. Huzzah!
The story, based off The Chinaman by Stephen Leather, feels a bit long at times but makes up for it with twists that keep the momentum going- all of the revealed identities or affiliations have a significant impact to the overall story. The pacing of The Foreigner is a nice, slow unraveling with a pretty peaceful ending. I will say there are a few questionable characters, starting with the journalist who happens to capture Quan’s picture after the attack. This character gets a bit more screentime later on, which, the story is still fine and it brings it a bit full circle, but is a little too contrived. However, these questionable characters aren’t so unnecessary that I couldn’t understand their place in the film- it was more or less, “But what about more Quan?”
As the main character in the film, Quan probably has the least amount of dialogue. Remember that scene in Shanghai Noon when Chan’s in jail asking for the book? This movie is basically that scene, except replace the word “book” with “names.” Chan, who we know as a stunt specialist with great comedic timing, gets to play a more serious role. This might be the first time I’ve seen him really get into dramatic acting and, in the eyes of someone who has seen that particular Western and its sequel more times than necessary, he does a better than expected job in conveying quiet grief and emotion. As the movie reveals more of his backstory, you can’t help but feel for the character. This movie makes me wish he had done more serious action roles in the 2000s and not that Karate Kid reboot. Brosnan gets most of the dialogue and plays the gritty, dirty politician perfectly, but he’s not a straight villain- he’s a character with a lot of different grey areas. It’s a role he can probably play in his sleep, but he does it really, really well.
As the director of two of my favorite Bond movies (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), it’s always a good time with Campbell at the helm. He knows when to let subtlety command and where to insert some practical action. Also, he and Chan make a really good action team- Campbell just knows how to shoot action and always has interesting choices of where the action happens, while Chan (of course) brings the creative flair to those settings. There are plenty of moments (and one particularly impressive dropkick), with the standout sequence going to the stairwell scene. It goes from a small attic, to the roof, to a bedroom, down a flight of stairs, down a few more stairs, into the parlor, into the kitchen- it’s a fairly small house but Campbell makes the most of the extremely confined spaces. There’s real, practical intimacy in these scenes without loud shreds of guitars and you can hear the grunts and blows landing. It’s gritty, it’s dirty, it’s bloody, it’s fun.
Another small highlight is Quan’s methodology of getting to Hennessy, with some homemade explosives and tricks. I really liked that he didn’t go all Taken and charge headfirst into battle- as an older, more weary man, Quan starts to take his position from afar, then physically gets closer and closer to Hennessy as the latter begins to unravel. It’s a nice little attention to detail that may or may not have been taken from the book- but nice nonetheless.
I don’t have too many gripes with the movie other than, well, the title. Not the title itself, but how the it’s used in the context of Quan and how he fits or exceeds the term “foreigner.” The whole idea is that Quan is considered this outsider, as he immigrated to England from Singapore with his family; but the issue on hand is his daughter’s death, not his origin. However, there are only two or three passing comments that reflect the bias he has faced in being a “foreigner,” so brief that they can be chalked up to throwaway comments. The word “Chinaman” is said (maybe) four times, but it’s implied the term is just not “politically correct” instead of being identified as an outright slur. It’s not a very commonly used slur, but it’s still on the list of “Wrong Things to Say to Asian People”- there’s a reason the movie isn’t going by the book’s title. It would have been so, so simple to have Brosnan using the term “Chinaman” and having one of his goons or politician friends chuckle and say, “Just make sure ye don’t say that in front of the press!” or something of the like. Due to the dramatic arc of this movie, there was definitely the right tone and enough capacity to address this. I’m not sure if the movie did its job of subverting the title to show Quan is a human with feelings, just like you and me, regardless of his birthplace.
Regardless, The Foreigner is an all-around good romp, with very little criticism and entertaining the whole way through. I appreciate that this was a thriller with a more meat to it- a movie that required a little more thinking and who-dun-it than some others out there, while also being pretty technically sound and entertaining to watch. By all means, this is a good movie.
*So who’s that last actor, you say? Michael McElhatton!? You mean the young, handsome nephew? No silly, he’s the old, slightly balding, right-hand henchman with exactly fifteen lines! The random guy in the picture with Brosnon that’s not Brosnan! You know, Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones**! Red Wedding orchestrator! I absolutely adore Roose for many weird reasons, so I’ll see any movie or show with this guy in it. I even watched The Zookeeper’s Wife for him! That was 10 minutes of glory. I was pretty surprised (and pleased) to see that he got so much screentime in The Foreigner. He does a solid job and surprisingly even shows up for some of the fight sequences. (He whacks Chan with a piece of wood in the trailer.) Here’s to seeing him in more!
**GOT, I hate what you did to this character after Season 5. I straight up hate you.