‘The Foreigner’ marks the great Jackie Chan’s return to English-language films after years away working in China. Unfortunately, anyone expecting a return of the insanely dangerous and beautifully choreographed action that made Chan an international superstar will walk away disappointed. Even so, the movie is a perfectly decent thriller, directed with terse style from Martin Campbell, who specializes in this sort of thing whenever he isn’t reinventing James Bond.
Chan stars as a single father living in Britain who’s life is turned all topsy-turvy when his daughter dies in a terrorist bombing. He shows up at the police station every day hoping to encourage some sort of action, but it becomes clear that the guy will have to take matters into his own hands if he wants justice. Meanwhile, Pierce Brosnan co-stars as a former IRA hardman turned Northern Ireland government official whose primary job now is keeping the peace amongst the broken factions of the IRA. He knows that someone in his organization is responsible for the initial attack and those that follow. He cuts secret deals with British politicians to make some pardons for friends, provided that he can smoke out those responsible. The trouble is that the plot may be focused on him, and now Chan (a former revolutionary himself) is wandering around as a wild card ensuring that someone pays for his daughter’s death. Cue the fireworks.
Actually, let’s back down on that statement. It’s more like cue the simmering smoke with the occasional firework (singular). Adapted from a novel by Stephen Leather (called ‘The Chinaman’, which was thankfully changed here although the slur is used by racist IRA extremists to described Chan fairly frequently), the film plays like an adaptation of an airport potboiler with a few spikes of action. For the most part, it’s a handsomely mounted adult thriller where characters snarl at each other in large estates or over cell phones as plot twists and bodies pile up. It works well enough on that level. Character actors yell at each other between brooding sessions. Mild political tension is mounted. Big reveals and twists aren’t too easy to predict. It’s a terse bit of genre entertainment for grown-ups to watch alongside a nice cup of tea.
But there are also little spikes of action. Director Campbell may have started with this brand of neo-noir thriller on television, but he became a blockbuster hotshot by combining that with stylishly shot (yet unflashy) hits like ‘GoldenEye’, ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘The Mask of Zorro’. He obviously doesn’t have that scale of production to play with here, but he does have Chan, which leads to a few fabulous set-pieces. One escape from baddies in a rental home is particularly intense, favoring genuine stunts and dangerous scenarios over bigger crash-boom-bang. It’s a thrilling reminder of what Chan does well and how well Campbell can mount these things. There’s not too much of that throughout, but just enough to make this more than a mere potboiler.
Chan also handles his brooding performance fine. There’s no smirking or giggling here. He’s in vigilante territory and does it with the right pained and stoic silence to sell it. It’s a little weird for such a tense and moderately realistic movie to explode into choreographed kung-fu carnage from time to time, but it’s nice to see the now 60-something Chan prove that he can still put on a show and provide a more subtle performance style than he’s typically allowed. Pierce Brosnan is also clearly having fun reuniting with the filmmaker who made him Bond with a snarling villainous performance. The two stars are amusing to watch go head-to-head. Sadly, they’re the only performers given the space to carve out memorable characters. Everyone else plays po-faced cogs in the plot. They’re all fine, just a little impersonal.
With the exception of a few flashes of directorial and/or movie star brilliance, “impersonal” is a reasonable assessment of the film as a whole. It’s a perfectly serviceable cinematic thrill generator for older audiences who remember these stars and don’t want their genre movies to be too thrilling anymore. The flick is well shot and performed. It hits all the right beats. It just also rarely rises above serviceable and is never as clever in its plotting or politics as the filmmakers seem to think it is.
Honestly, that’s fine. This is a fun throwback B-movie for those who grew up on ’80s and ’90s action extravaganzas. Would it have been nice for Campbell, Chan and Brosnan to team up for something more? Sure, but it’s also not 1996 anymore. That wasn’t ever going to happen.