This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
“The Foreigner” had potential. An “R”-rated, gritty action picture starring a cast against type Jackie Chan and directed by Martin Campbell, a journeyman director who nonetheless made two good James Bond films, “Goldeneye” and “Casino Royale,” the latter containing one of the greatest action sequences put on film. Sadly, at best, “The Foreigner” is as generic as its title. At worst, it’s a nauseating potboiler.
Chan stars as Quan Ngoc Minh, an unassuming everyman hiding the face of a highly skilled agent. His former self is unleashed when his daughter (Katie Leung, from “Harry Potter” fame, who’s gone faster than you can say Cho Chang) is killed in a London terrorist attack by a splinter group, the “Authentic IRA.” Mind on revenge, Quan begins stalking Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an uncooperative Irish deputy minister with ties to the IRA, whom Quan believes has information leading to the terrorists.
It’s a different role for Jackie Chan. Sporting a graying mane, stray hairs on his chin, and a shuffle, his goofy comic persona is thoroughly packed away, replaced by a grieving father who kills if pushed. Too bad the movie doesn’t take advantage of this change. Quan isn’t much of a character; he just skulks in the shadows looking (understandably) morose. Halfway through, Hennessy takes refuge on his farm and Quan hides in the woods nearby appearing now and then to inflict damage on his home and bodyguards. That’s about all he does in the movie.
The dramatic heavy lifting is left completely to Brosnan as Hennessy. And despite the action heavy trailers for the film, much of it is devoted to his weeding out the terrorists, keeping his political career alive, and remaining in good standing with the IRA, all while facing double and triple crosses. He and his problems, though, are about as interesting as Quan.
The action, when it comes, is short and uninspiring, and if you’ve seen those trailers, you’ve seen all of the action beats, including the finale. What is there isn’t even exciting. One sequence has Quan taking out bodyguards one by one with convenient traps– a tripwire here, a pit of spikes there, all in exactly the right place to take them out. “Rambo-esque,” I thought, “this is gonna be good.” But then, without escalation, three guards are incapacitated and that’s it; the sequence ends before it properly begins. It’s all filmed competently, so damn competently it borders on banal. Sometimes the camera swoops around Chan in mid-action, as if to remind us that what we’re seeing is supposed to be exciting, but all it does is call attention to itself and make the action harder to make out.
Sadly, what isn’t hard to make out are Chan’s stuntmen. A stand in, a white guy with brown hair (!), is glaringly obvious at one point, his face clearly caught on camera mid-enemy-flip. Disheartening as it can be, none of us can escape Father Time, not even Jackie Chan. But must his stuntmen be so obvious?
I was going to dismiss the movie as a simple yawn-inducer: watchable, but utterly forgettable. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m repulsed by “The Foreigner.” Chan is the hero, but his actions keep recklessly endangering innocent lives. He sets off a bomb in a public bathroom. How did he know nobody would be in there? Oh, it’s okay because a detective declares, “[it] wasn’t a serious bomb.” But this un-serious bomb goes off with a fiery, room-enveloping explosion that blows doors off their hinges.
And he keeps setting up bombs in public places. This is all excused because he’s not trying to kill anybody. And he doesn’t, but only because the script doesn’t allow it; the bombs, apparently, read the script. Also, the finale (spoilers) features the torture and execution of an incapacitated, unarmed female terrorist by male police, the movie then positing that torture is a viable means of extracting information. Disturbing stuff, but these elements are fair game for a movie. They’re complicated, though; they should be dealt with, commented upon. But “The Foreigner” presents all the above as simple and acceptable. It normalizes Quan’s actions and torture as if they’re “kickass!” That turns my stomach.
“The Foreigner” has the somber tone befitting a movie that deals with morally gray (or in this case, black) areas, but then refuses to deal with those muted colors, resulting in a joyless “B” picture that satisfies no one. It has neither depth nor does it deliver the action goods. I disliked it so much that when an invitation was extended to attend a second showing of the film with Jackie Chan in attendance, I passed. Chan is one of my heroes, but I’m not sitting through this movie again.