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Jackie Chan’s new thriller, The Foreigner, is a cat-and-mouse game between Chan’s grieving father and Pierce Brosnan’s IRA-involved politician, but there are too many other players to keep the tension going. (Warning: Plot spoilers are ahead.)
The movie, directed by Martin Campbell, was based on the 1992 Stephen Leather novel, “The Chinaman,” but its IRA bombers-centered plot seems pretty dated now (is the IRA the real threat today?) In an ode to the novel, Brosnan’s character and his goon squad repeatedly refer to Chan as “The Chinaman,” which is pretty cringe-inducing every time you hear it.
The movie rips a page from the “old men are still pretty tough blokes when their daughters are in peril, so don’t mess with their kids” genre. Think of Chan, 63, as Liam Neeson in Taken, heading to Belfast instead of Paris, and with a dead daughter, not a living one.
It’s not that it’s not worth seeing; it’s passable popcorn fare, and Chan does show some new dimensions as an actor, although it won’t leave you thinking about it much afterwards, and there’s something kind of depressing about seeing Chan play a teary-eyed, nearly suicidal character so down-trodden and depressed (you keep waiting for him to burst to life in dynamic action-scenes, shedding the skin of the sad sack father to reveal the special ops martial artist beneath. Although that happens, eventually, it doesn’t happen soon or enough.) The movie lacks the spark and pacing of past Campbell movies like Casino Royale.
There are really two protagonists in The Foreigner: Chan, whose lone surviving daughter, is murdered in an IRA terrorist attack, and Pierce Brosnan, as a former IRA member turned Northern Ireland mainstream politician, who’s got a cozy relationship with the British but is hiding his own complicity and continued IRA sympathies.
Brosnan does a more than effective job playing the morally challenged politician with multiple lives (the character seems loosely based on someone like Gerry Adams, when it comes to the broad brush outlines of a man with IRA ties working through the political process in later years.) With his heavy Irish brogue and double lives, we almost forget the suave and syrupy James Bond. The bearded, bespectacled Brosnan looks more like Gerry Adams than Gerry Adams, some on social media surmised.
The movie, of course, does nothing to paint the nuances of the Irish-English conflicts, choosing instead to make the IRA members one-note brutes without back stories, picking on the poor British.
Part of the problem with the script is actually what’s just happened here. There are two stories at play, and at times, it feels like two movies with Chan an increasingly insignificant character in a bigger political chess game starring Pierce Brosnan and other assorted foils – his wife, the British politician who’s almost his handler, the IRA leader who hasn’t really gone straight. Chan isn’t the person who figures out the bombers’ identities, although the first part of the movie focuses on his quest to do so at any cost; the British authorities do that, sucking some of the power out of the protagonist. He confronts the bombers’ in their apartment, but the police were outside watching anyway, and it’s another cop who foils an imminent bombing threat at the airport. If Jackie Chan isn’t going to be the guy to save the day, what’s he doing there?
It seems like he’s roaming around the woods, carving himself up with a knife in some kind of vision quest ritual, while the real drama occurs within the IRA and Pierce Brosnan’s country home office. The notion of an IRA soldier turned politician (and whether he can ever leave old loyalties aside) is a rich one, but it’s not fully explored here, because they stuck Jackie Chan in the film too.
Chan is relegated to planting fake bombs as warnings and begging Brosnan repeatedly for “the names” as he stages implausible stunts (really? A bomb in the toilet that Brosnan casually brushes off and doesn’t seem to make the news?)
There are a few entertaining fight scenes that give us a glimpse of the Chan we want to see, and he channels the pathos and dignity of the grieving dad. Brosnan shows depth as an actor. Both men are probably underappreciated as character actors. However, it’s all a bit disjointed, and the tension comes and goes, making the 1 hour and 54 minute run time seem like a longer movie.