Film Review: The Foreigner

Grieving Chinese special-forces op takes on the IRA in a politically muddled but still satisfying Jackie Chan vehicle.
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A brisk, clever vigilante adventure, The Foreigner is an above-average Jackie Chan movie that skirts around some awkward politics. With a strong cast and steady direction, it gives Chan the chance to show a persuasive dramatic side.

He plays Quan Ngoc Minh, owner of a Chinese restaurant in London. In the opening scenes his daughter is killed in a bombing by the "authentic IRA," a new terrorist sect. Devastated, Quan appeals daily to the police for information, only to be turned away. He spots Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) in a TV interview. A former IRA leader who has been preaching peace for decades, Liam also pushes him off.

Quan travels to Belfast to confront an exasperated Liam in person. The Deputy Minister again denies knowledge of the bombers. The stakes suddenly change when Quan blows up a bathroom in Liam's office, and later plants a bomb in his car.

Turns out Quan was a special-ops agent, and no amount of IRA goons can stop him, not in Belfast or on Liam's country estate. "I need more men," Liam keeps muttering as casualties pile up, eventually sending to New York for his nephew Sean (Rory Fleck Byrne), an Iraq War veteran with skills of his own.

David Marconi's screenplay, adapted from a 1992 thriller, does a better job explaining Liam's world than Quan's. The feuds, rivalries and machinations involving wives, mistresses, politicians and killers form a very convincing devil's brew of suspicion and hatred. With all of the betrayals and hidden motives circling around, The Foreigner takes on positively Shakespearean overtones, within a modern-day thuggery reminiscent of movies like Layer Cake.

Quan, on the other hand, is a pretty standard-issue vigilante, albeit an elderly one who shuffles around deferentially. Chan has always expressed admiration for Sylvester Stallone, and his hero here is not far removed from Rambo. That doesn't make his action scenes any less entertaining, but the plot relegates him to the sidelines for long stretches.

Sporting a beard like Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and a thick Northern Irish accent, Brosnan is excellent, narrowing his eyes as his world collapses, turning vicious when he has to. Orla Brady is especially good as his scheming, vengeful wife. But the entire cast is far better than in Chan's other recent Western productions.

So is the direction. The Foreigner has the moody tone and narrative drive of Martin Campbell's Edge of Darkness, another thriller in which a retired vigilante is more interested in personal justice than politics. With its bombings of civilians, The Foreigner occasionally succumbs to the pornography of violence. Politically it is all over the place, by its climax using torture and murder to combat terrorism. It's hard to tell whether that's a criticism or endorsement.

If you know Jackie Chan, The Foreigner may strike you as a return to his glory days. He has one remarkably choreographed fight scene that covers three or four stories in a boarding house, its pounding blows, kicks and falls brutally real. Later set-pieces feel more compromised, but Chan wisely plays his age instead of reaching for heroics.

Chan's peak was some 30 years ago, well before most of today's moviegoers were born. Getting them to view him as a viable lead could be the main problem The Foreigner faces. The movie's middling opening in Chinese markets is not promising.

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