Jackie Chan plays the person that the title The Foreigner refers to, though nobody ever calls him that. They tend to call him “Chinaman,” as in, “That bloody Chinaman!” Halfway through I thought: “I bet this movie was originally called The Chinaman.” Sure enough, it’s based on a 1992 novel (by Stephen Leather) that had that very title. Can’t imagine why it didn’t survive the adaptation process.
Anyway, it’s good to see the 63-year-old Chan again, in his first major onscreen appearance in a wide-release film since The Karate Kid remake seven years ago. This is a serious-minded cat-and-mouse thriller, not a chopsocky romp, and Chan plays a man seeking justice for his murdered daughter, not a comedy figure paired with an incongruous partner who doesn’t understand him. But he still gets a few opportunities to kick butt in the traditional Jackie Chan fashion, in the service of a story that’s well suited to him as he approaches his senior years, even if it does lose its focus and even if Chan is not the main character.
He plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee in London whose teenage daughter is killed in an IRA bombing — the first such attack in 19 years. The sudden violation of the peace accord has everyone in the British government spooked, including Liam Hennessy (a purring Pierce Brosnan), the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland who repented of his own IRA terrorism 30 years ago. Quan comes to Hennessy wanting the names of those responsible for the blast. Hennessy says he doesn’t know who went rogue. Quan doesn’t believe him. Quan, it turns out, also knows how to make explosives, and how to send messages along the lines of “I could have killed you just now but didn’t. I WANT NAMES.”
As Quan goes to Belfast to track down the killers himself, the movie shifts its attention to Liam Hennessy, a smooth politician with a mistress (Charlie Murphy), a wife he hates (Orla Brady), and a nephew, Sean (Rory Fleck Byrne), with special-ops training and IRA sympathies who might be able to help protect the Hennessys from attacks by Quan. Quan emerges as a Rambo-esque master of stealth and booby traps, which is fun to watch even if the backstory behind how he got those skills is only barely explored.
While I haven’t read the novel, descriptions of it (and the title) suggest it focuses more on Quan than on Hennessy. The movie, adapted by David Marconi (Enemy of the State) and directed by Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Green Lantern“) emphasizes Hennessy and the tricky, secretive politics involved in keeping the peace between Belfast and London. Quan disappears for long stretches of the movie, and the result feels like two separate but related stories, with Quan’s being the spinoff.
The film would almost certainly have been better if it had committed to one story or the other — to either fully develop Quan’s history and character, or to go all-in on the political machinations of a man torn between loyalties. Yet the mixture of political intrigue and good old-fashioned vigilantism proves to be a tasty one, maybe because we don’t see it very often. Brosnan gives a sparkling performance as the calculating Hennessy, and Chan’s un-campy dramatic turn is refreshing. It’s the IRA-flavored Death Wish remake we didn’t know we needed.
Eric D. Snider lives, seeks vengeance in Portland.