As they age, plenty of actors are trying their hand at playing grizzled badasses in revenge-based action movies. The results have been up and down to say the least. Liam Neeson has proven the most successful of these—though I’m not a fan of the Taken movies, the likes of Run All Night deliver the goods. But now it’s time for Jackie Chan to get in on the act with The Foreigner, so everyone else, step away and give the man room to work.
Where The Foreigner distinguishes itself from its counterparts is in the action. While Taken and it’s ilk feature action hacked to shit to make people look like they can fight, Jackie Chan obviously knows how to throw down. Director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) has made a career of turning in solid, workmanlike, if unremarkable action movies, and knows well enough to sit back and let his action icon leading man do what he does. And even at 63, and though he’s lost a step—a step from where he was, which was leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else—it’s still thrilling to watch Chan dangle off a roof and pummel bad guys.
Chan plays Quan, a quiet London restaurant owner and doting father whose daughter dies in an IRA bombing. Of course, it turns out that there’s more to this simple man than his humble exterior belies. With everything taken from him, he sleuths and bludgeons his way through a parade of Irish goons, looking for answers he believes politician and former radical Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) has.
More a procedural than a straight up balls-to-the-wall thrill ride, there’s plenty of action. But this isn’t the wacky good-times, slapstick Jackie Chan that so many are familiar with. Age plays a definite role. Every blow is stripped down and practical. Quan knows the longer a fight goes—especially as he faces off against younger, better prepared foes—the greater the chance he makes a mistake and loses. Each move is compact, designed to finish things as fast a possible. Punches and kicks are raw and visceral, and even when it goes his way, you see how much it hurts.
Even beyond the action, Chan delivers a fantastic performance. Longtime fans won’t be surprised by this serious turn, but it’s unlike most of his recent output by a long shot. He’s quiet and reserved, just wanting to be left alone and live his life, until he’s pushed to extremes. Layered and torn and all sad, weepy eyes, he doesn’t necessarily like what he has to do, but there’s no other option.
On the other side, Brosnan also hits highs we haven’t seen from him in a while. While Quan’s narrative is rather straightforward, Hennessy’s twists and turns and coils in on itself. He plays both sides of the fence, the British and the Irish, delving into politics, conspiracy, and back-door deals. With torn allegiances and contradictory motives, he’s more complex and nuanced than a simple stock villain.
While there are definite peaks, the convoluted plot holds The Foreigner down. Based on Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman, the literary origins become readily apparent as the story piles layer on top of layer. In a novel, there’s room to let threads spool out and evolve, but even in a near-two-hour movie, there simply isn’t enough space to devote to everything, and much remains half-baked and underdeveloped.
The revenge aspect of The Foreigner is plays simple and easy, and Quan’s backstory unfolds in an expected, predictable way. Hennessy’s story on the other hand, is a jumbled mess. There’s drama with his wife (Orla Brady), his mistress (Charlie Murphy), and his nephew (Rory Fleck Byrne). Asides with a newspaper reporter, a British intelligence agent, and rogue bombers all weave randomly through the film. For a large chunk, Quan completely disappears, and with it most of the momentum and emotional investment. And the ultimate conclusion feels lifted from a completely different movie—more in line with a spy film rather than a political thriller.
Cliff Martinez (Only God Forgives, Spring Breakers) does what he can to prop up the pace with his score. Though his synth-heavy sounds don’t always jibe with the action on screen—there are moments that dip into ‘80s horror territory—he pumps the tempo, which helps propel the movie forward in times when it sags.
The Foreigner doesn’t blow the doors off the revenge-action model, but it does become one of the best recent old-guy-is-a-secret-badass movies. And it has the added bonus of Jackie Chan proving he’s still as good as anyone in the game. [Grade:: B]