The Foreigner (Martin Campbell) 3 out of 4 stars.
It takes a while for The Foreigner to settle down. A film about a terrorist bombing and the retaliatory vengeance that it inspires, it is initially all over the place, cutting back and forth between London and Belfast, trafficking in ethnic stereotypes. But then a funny thing happens on the way to the final carnage: the story and characters evolve. Marveling at the strangeness of it all, I was nevertheless engaged. For the entirety of its 114 minutes, the movie held my interest, this despite some graphic violence that increases towards the end. Let’s give it points for some level of originality, mixed in with the action clichés, and for fully committed performances from its two leads, Jackie Chan (Chinese Zodiac) and Pierce Brosnan (The Tailor Of Panama).
Directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) and based on the 1992 book The Chinaman, by Stephen Leather, The Foreigner begins with a car ride through London, as gentle father Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) drives his teen daughter to the store where her fancy new dress awaits. Given the action credentials of Mr. Chan (not to mention the success of actor Liam Neeson’s own Taken series, in which a father does everything to protect his daughter), we keep waiting for something to happen. When it does, though, it is worse than expected, leaving Chan’s Quan a sobbing mess.
Cut to Belfast, in Northern Island, where former IRA (and, later, Sinn Féin) member – and now British government minister – Liam Hennessy (Brosnan) is woken from the arms of his young mistress by a call from his superiors, asking him to track down those responsible for the bombing, who claim to be from a new group, “the authentic IRA.” Unhappy with the 20-year peace, these young terrorists appear to seek destabilization as their primary goal, though someone more senior to them could be pulling the strings. Hennessy gathers his old comrades in arms and insists that they cooperate to find the culprits. No one is above suspicion.
Cut back to London, where Quan, still gentle and reserved, keeps asking the London authorities for information on the bombers. Getting nothing, he decides to pursue his own investigation, which is when we learn that he may not be just the quiet Chinese restaurant owner that he seems (nor is he Chinese, despite being called “Chinaman” by the white folks). And so we have our two parallel narratives – a taut drama about internecine conflicts among the Northern Irish and a classic (if violent) revenge tale – slowly converging until they are one. It’s not always an obvious fit, and in many ways the one story does not need the other: they’re each compelling enough in their own way. But it’s the oddness of the combination that lends the film its own unique appeal.
Jackie Chan is always a delight to watch. A brilliant action choreographer, he is also a fine actor, and here there is the added interest of watching him modify much of his stunts to suit the ability of a well-trained, but older, fighter. His character is in his 60s, as is Chan. He is extremely capable, but not superman. Brosnan does his best work in years as a man playing all sides of the table. A former combatant, his Hennessy just wants to enjoy the peace, and riches, he’s earned. Still, there may be more than a trace left within him of the violence he long ago eschewed.
The rest of the ensemble cast – Orla Brady (The Price of Desire), Rory Fleck Byrne (Tiger Raid) and Charlie Murphy (To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters) among them – is equally strong. A lot of people die, including, sadly, women at the hands of men, yet none of it feels overly gratuitous, and certainly none of it is cheered (though I did hear members of the audience laughing at Chan’s cleverness). The ending, despite the satisfying conclusion of one of the narratives, is somber, rather than celebratory. No one really wins in a fight like this. Except, perhaps, the viewing public, which walks away having seen a well-structured and absorbing action thriller with quite a few surprising plot twists. Now that’s a victory I can cheer.