Jackie Chan is well known for comedy martial arts movies and ridiculous, over the top action sequences. In The Foreigner, he tries to put all that behind him and get serious. It doesn’t turn out well.
Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) is a dangerously hypercompetent ex-military guy who is lovingly devoted to his daughter Fan (Katie Leung). Unfortunately for Quan, Fan is not taken or kidnapped at the start of the film, she’s blown up. Convinced that high-ranking Irish minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) knows who the bombers are, Quan relentlessly hounds Hennessy with steadily escalating violence and destruction to get him to give up the names.
The Foreigner is based on the novel The Chinaman, which was published in 1992, way back when bombings carried out by the Irish Republican Army were all over the news. Which leads to the first problem. To a modern American audience, IRA is a retirement account, not a terrorist organization. Not having lived through it, and having pretty short memories anyway, most Americans can’t really identify with the fear of renewed British/Irish hostility that drives most of the plot, so much of the film’s tension is lost.
Jackie Chan’s performance can best be described as monotonous and monotonal. He apparently decided that being serious meant remaining silent and expressionless throughout most of the film and delivering what few lines he had without a trace of emotion. Maybe he was trying to portray a man broken beyond the point of having anything left to lose, but he seemed more like a robot methodically performing a series of programmed tasks.
This is made worse by a parallel storyline that renders Quan largely irrelevant. Hennessy spends most of the movie walking a tightrope between the British government and his Irish compatriots. He desperately and genuinely tries to find a solution to a very nasty problem. He’s highly motivated to get to the bottom of things with or without Quan blowing up his stuff, and ultimately Quan’s antics serve as little more than an aggravating distraction on top of everything else Hennessy has to deal with. Ninety-five percent of what happens would have happened anyway if Quan had just stayed home and moped. Hennessy’s political maneuvering and the efforts of British law enforcement would have led to almost exactly the same outcomes if Quan had done nothing. Quan’s presence actually detracts from what might otherwise have been a reasonably entertaining political thriller.
The action sequences do stand out as particularly well done, although there are not nearly as many of them as the trailer leads you to believe. The fight choreography is excellent. Quan is a once formidable fighter long past his prime, and the fight sequences do an excellent job of conveying that. There are a few moments that fleetingly harken back to Jackie Chan’s crazy fights of old, but it’s not too over the top. It does get a bit silly for a while when Hennessy tries to take refuge at his country house and Quan engages in the kind of farcical jungle fighting that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were doing in the 80s, but it’s not too awful and can largely be forgiven.
All things considered, The Foreigner gives us a movie primarily about Northern Irish politics, a wooden protagonist irrelevant to the plot, and some good fight scenes.
Overall rating: 4/10