Director: Martin Campbell
Writer: David Marconi
Release Date: October 13, 2017
A tale of revenge, politics, camping, and Irish Republican terrorism, adapted from Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman, and starring in his wizened, early-60s glory, my friend and yours, Mr Jackie Chan.
I have two questions straight away. First: Early-60s? Really?
Yup. A lifetime of doing his own movie stunts has clearly taken a toll on Chan, who moves a little slower than he used to, and can no longer throw himself into those long, fluid takes, or that complex choreography that turns an everyday object like a ladder into a springboard, a limbo bar, an actual ladder, and then, finally, a weapon. He still seems perfectly willing to throw himself backwards off a hill and land on the nape of his neck, mind, so you can hardly say he’s lost his touch.
It’s the “Authentic” IRA in this case, but yes, that’s one of the film’s weirder wrinkles. When the novel first came out, of course, the status of Sinn Féin wasn’t certain, and the promise of peace was a fragile thing, easily broken. Nowadays the headlines are dominated by a different, more aimless form of terrorism; less explicitly political in its inspiration, but leveraged more cynically and callously in its aftermath. A film that sought to be more topical might have honed in on that contemporary strain of terror, but The Foreigner is an adaptation. And besides, it isn’t as though there’s an expiry date on heinous acts. A bomb, whether it’s planted in the parking garage of a financial building or under the seat of a school bus or a passenger plane, isn’t just an explosion. It is waves and ripples of heat, destruction, loss, guilt, vulnerability, hopelessness, despair, and they buffet not just the victims but their families and communities. The legacy of terror is long-lasting and far-reaching. It’s always timely.
Good point. So, what’s The Foreigner about?
Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese restaurant owner whose wife and two daughters were killed years earlier while escaping Cambodia. He managed to save one daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), but she’s promptly blown up while dress-shopping by a rogue IRA cell, leaving Quan widowed, childless, and very, very pissed off.
Chan can’t summon the gravitas to be truly persuasive in the role of a grieving father, but there’s something about his character here, a haggard, small man with monotonic, rudimentary English, that is about as compelling as it needs to be. And he’s likeable in his early attempts to learn the names of his daughter’s killers, first by trying to bribe a Scotland Yard officer, Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), and then by badgering ex-IRA deputy minister Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), who claims to know nothing about the bombings. Quan, needless to say, thinks otherwise.
I imagine Quan’s right?
As it happens, no, not entirely. And if there’s anything that gives The Foreigner slightly more thematic weight and narrative intrigue, it’s the fact that Hennessey legitimately doesn’t know who’s behind the attacks. He’s a man with a history of violence that he’s trying to put behind him, and every reason to want the culprits out of the way every bit as much as Quan does. Which, structurally, makes him the protagonist, and an interesting, flawed one, whereas Quan functions more as a wildcard – neither man has all the facts, neither is entirely correct in their assumptions or actions, and both, despite being thinly-drawn, are interesting enough to carry a movie such as this.
Oh. That’s… surprising.
It is, and thanks, I assume, to its literary source. But the problem, as is often the case with adaptations, is that a feature-film offers a much narrower narrative canvas than a novel does, which means that a lot more potential nuance is lost somewhere in the translation. What’s there is still enough to elevate The Foreigner slightly above what it might otherwise have been, but there’s still a palpable strain as the film attempts to juggle characters that have conflicting motivations and histories.
Brosnan, despite laying the accent on a bit thick, is particularly good here. With a grey beard and little round glasses, he finds an intriguing mid-point between a politician who’s worried about alienating his IRA-sympathetic base, and an angry, tired man who is sick of necessary allegiances, outmoded ways of thinking, and a close-knit circle of associates and family who would rather he still behaved like the man he’s trying desperately not to be anymore.
Are you giving this film too much credit?
Who, me? Too much credit isn’t really my thing. And besides, these aren’t subtle observations – The Foreigner’s whole problem is that its characterisations are broad and obvious, wedged into an otherwise-formulaic revenge melodrama that doesn’t leave any time or space to properly explore them. These people might be facilely interesting, but they’re never developed or asked to do anything you don’t expect. There are many conversations in Hennessey’s expansive country manse between old-school Irishmen who evidently resent the formality of a new, peaceful order; they’d much rather be Quan, camouflaged in the woodland outside, laying traps for his prey. The film makes fleeting attempts to pit these ideologies against each other. The immoral and illegal methods are just and expedient; the right way is lengthy, convoluted, and beholden to a judicial system that is frequently insufficient or incorrect. But The Foreigner’s commentary is muddled. We’re expected to root for the man who has taken the law into his own hands, but equally expected to understand that in many ways he’s wrong. This isn’t complexity, its confusion, and when the storytelling is so muddled, all we’re really left with are the usual action sequences and genre beats that you expect to find in a film that sells itself on Jackie Chan dropkicking terrorists.
Why else would you cast Jackie Chan, though?
Fair point. The dropkicking is certainly here, it’s often fine, and it’s sometimes rather good. The Foreigner’s set-pieces lack the slapstick improvisation that Chan is known for, but they retain his trademark sense for naturalistic choreography, as multiple attackers beset Quan at the same time, and everyday household objects become weapons, shields, or platforms. The Foreigner is just smart enough to utilise Chan’s age and obvious weariness; all his lapses in focus and reflexes are intentional, not a symptom of an older acting struggling to keep up, but an older character using superior skill and knowledge despite his physical limitations. It’s staggering how many prominent critics have failed to make this distinction.
If the action is good, isn’t that all that matters?
The action is good, but that’s never all that matters, and it’s a failure of criticism and critics to suggest that we should judge films on how well they tick boxes on a rote genre checklist, rather than how well they are made, and how effectively they provide a transporting experience. The Foreigner is not badly-made, but it fails to be transporting or particularly memorable, thanks mostly to how much potential it had to be both. Its characters and themes are interesting but shallow, and while its action is fine, it isn’t enough to distract from how frustrating it is to be so tantalisingly close to a better film.
There’s value in a more mature, measured version of Jackie Chan’s trademark campy combat, but The Foreigner is often serious to a fault, and doesn’t quite have the depth or the intelligence to mine that seriousness for legitimately compelling drama. It has reasonably strong action and a novel focus, though, and is far from the worst genre flick you’ll have seen this year. If this is the direction Chan wants to take in his senior years, I think he’s earned it; the same approach worked for Liam Neeson, and luckily Chan doesn’t need a team of editors just to climb a fence.
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