Martin Campbell’s The Foreigner is a tale of two movies. On the one hand, it is the latest in a series of movies in the iconic “Dad Revenge” genre (your Taken‘s and your Death Sentence‘s and so on and so forth), and on the other hand, it is a film interested in spending as much time as possible exploring the political and interpersonal relationships that make the peace accords between Northern Ireland and Great Britain work. If those two movies bound together sound disparate, you’d be right.
Director Martin Campbell’s own latest addition to the Dad Revenge genre (he previously helmed 2010’s bleak-but-great Edge of Darkness, which I’ve just discovered is based on an ’80s miniseries of his I must now check out) ends up bit more convoluted than it needs to be, and often feels like those two movies begrudgingly exist in parallel. But it does have a pretty big ringer in its corner: screen legend Jackie Chan, beating the holy hell out of people.
Revenge movies usually start up two different ways; in media res, or with a slow build up to the loss. The Foreigner chooses to give us a rushed few minutes in the beginning to introduce us to Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) and his energetic daughter, Fan (Katie Leung, whom Harry Potter fans will recognize as Cho Chang) before she is killed in a bombing that is claimed by a rogue IRA cell.
After this immediate jump into violence and action, the movie stomps on the breaks as the rest of the cast is arranged and set up. British and Irish government officials take center stage. Here we’re introduced to Liam Hennessy, a former IRA member who has risen to the rank of deputy minister in Northern Ireland, played by Pierce Brosnan. We spend a lot of time establishing who is related, who is fucking who, and who plotted what and why. Brosnan, rejoining his old GoldenEye director, gets the chance to chew the hell out of quite a number of scenes. But while Brosnan and company (it’s a bevy of talented UK actors strewn throughout the picture) are having a decent (if obvious, in terms of plot) time, it feels oddly disconnected from the story we all really want to see: Jackie Chan finding and punching the people who killed his daughter.
Quan at first politely, if insistently, waits for the police to find the men responsible and bring them to justice. When they fail to get results at a rate he finds satisfying, and after deciding that Liam Hennessy knows more than he’s letting on, he decides to take matters into his own hands. From here, Jackie Chan transforms into an implacable, if mostly polite, Terminator. He begins harrying Hennessy, blowing up his bathroom and stable, injuring his men and laying traps in the forest around his home, beating up Roose Bolton in a stairway and poisoning Hennessy’s dog (don’t worry, it’s fine). He even starts making threatening midnight visits to the man’s office.
All the while we switch back to Brosnan’s perspective as he is violently harassed by Chan. He seems oddly unconcerned about the whole affair, which is maybe appropriate since his own narrative is so disconnected from Chan’s.
The Foreigner, like all of these movies, is at its best best when it is lean and focused on the machinations of how Quan plans on using his particular set of skills (in this case learned in Chinese Special Forces) to accomplish his goals (while Cliff Martinez’s fantastic score pulses underneath). It’s not that there isn’t drama or poor performances in the half of the movie devoted to Brosnan and his compatriots and enemies, it’s that Quan’s side of things is that much easier to care about. When you stop by a movie like this, what you’re signing up for it Jackie Chan stomping on some fools. The Foreigner ends up being a little long in the tooth politically and a little short on the fool-stomping.