There’s a lot of things that ‘The Foreigner,’ the new action thriller starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan, does very well.
It’s a lean, gritty, well-constructed piece of action cinema, thanks to the capable directing hand of veteran action director Martin Campbell.
It’s also populated by complex characters and compelling political and personal intrigue. The plot has twists, but not outlandish ones – if you’re paying attention as the story unfolds, things fall into place and make sense.
It’s not a perfect film. There’s a casting issue that some may be able to forgive, while for others it could throw them out of the film’s drama entirely.
But for the most part there’s a great deal to enjoy here, especially for fans of the genre and the talent involved.
What’s it about?
Chan plays Quan, a father who loses his 15-year-old daughter, Fan (Katie Leung) when she’s caught in the blast of a terrorist bomb set outside a London storefront.
Quan’s devastating grief slowly transforms into rage as the investigation into the bombing drags down. An Irish extremist group claimed responsibility for the blast, but beyond that, there’s little information the government investigators are willing to share, especially with a civilian.
The ongoing media coverage does point Quan toward Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), a former IRA member who now works within the UK’s government. Hennessy is quietly conducting his own investigation into the bombing to maintain the nearly two-decade peace between the British and the Irish and to preserve his own political agenda.
Between pressure from Whitehall over the investigation, rumblings from his own supporters and certain personal indiscretions, Hennessy’s plenty of his own problems. But when he rebuffs Quan’s tireless requests for the names of the bombers, he makes himself a target, too, as Quan is far more than simply a grieving father.
Lean and mean
Director Martin Campbell is perhaps best remembered for his work on James Bond films. His most recent Bond film was 2006’s “Casino Royale,” which introduced Daniel Craig to the world as 007.
But in 1995 he directed “Goldeneye,” which served a similar function in that it brought to the screen the long-awaited debut of Brosnan in the iconic Bond role. “Goldeneye” turned out to be arguably Brosnan’s most enjoyable effort as Bond, due in no small measure to Campbell’s grittier, more viscerally evocative approach to the material.
Campbell’s approach serves “The Foreigner” very well. The film’s action is brutally well-staged, and while there’s a little bit of the martial arts element to what Campbell asks Chan to deliver, this is far from the over-the-top high-flying kung-fu action Chan fans have enjoyed for decades.
Instead, Quan, while very formidable, takes plenty of hits, just as the Bond characters did in Campbell’s 007 films. Between the film’s editing and action choreography, “The Foreigner” presents a very grounded style of action for Chan, but one that’s still very enjoyable.
Campbell also once again gets fine work out of Brosnan, who doesn’t get to engage in the fisticuffs this time but still gets to show off some grit when things get ugly. Brosnan’s character is the one walking the tightest rope throughout the film, and he delivers the tension borne of so many conflicting emotions and priorities with polish and verve.
Chan as grim warrior
If there’s a weak link in the casting of the film, it’s Chan. Obviously, it’s not for the action elements of the film – even at age 63, Chan is still more than capable of selling the action he’s called upon to perform.
But as stated earlier, it’s a very different sort of dramatic role for Chan, one that doesn’t necessarily play to his well-established strengths as an actor. Put simply, he doesn’t get to smile much, or be very expressive facially, and that’s something that always set him apart from his contemporaries in the genre he helped build.
Instead, he’s called upon to emote in a much darker emotional space, conveying the journey from mind-numbing grief to grim determination and obsession.
It’s an ambitious undertaking that Chan clearly throws himself into. It’s not completely successful, however, and that result holds “The Foreigner” back from being a great dramatic thriller.
Another thing hardcore action film fans should think about when considering seeing “The Foreigner” in theaters is that it’s a slow burn, pacing-wise. The script takes its time in building tension and stakes before delivering the goods in terms of action.
By no means is it a slow-moving film – things happen and the tension ratchets up at a reasonable pace. But in terms of fists and bullets flying and things blowing up, the production is a little more economical. They save the best bangs for last, and sometimes those bangs are metaphorical.
All that said, there’s enough done very well in “The Foreigner” to make it worth your while at the box office this weekend. It’s solid, smart entertainment that packs a punch when it needs to without being overly stylized or heavy on special effects and green screens.
It’s not the most “fun” project we’ve ever seen Chan do, but it’s certainly one that tests his range and shows us a different side of what he’s capable of.
That alone should make it worthy of our attention.
Starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Orla Brady, Rory Fleck Byrne, Michael McElhatton. Directed by Martin Campbell
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material.