When I first heard about The Foreigner back in the halcyon days of 2015, I was puzzled as to why anyone would agree to make it; it was a Jackie Chan movie, directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), also starring Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye)! This sounded like the worst idea for a movie since a Pacific Rim sequel not directed by Guillermo del Toro. Now, in defense of 2015 me, things weren’t exactly bright and sunny for the three names above. Chan, still trying to hold onto his glory days, was making big budget duds like Chinese Zodiac and Skiptrace. Campbell was nearly 10 years removed from Casino Royale and was also recovering from the recent Green Lantern debacle. As for Brosnan, he was still reeling from the shockingly dull The November Man and the forgotten film Survivor. There was absolutely NO REASON for this movie to be any good, which is what made the act of seeing it such a pleasant surprise.
Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan) is a retired Vietnam War special forces operator now living in London with his daugher, Fan. She is the only family he has left until she is killed in a bombing committed by the “Authentic IRA.” His search for vengeance leads him to Irish deputy minister, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member turned politician. Quan demands to know the names of the bombers but Hennessy claims to know nothing of this new IRA cell.
Don’t make the mistake of approaching this as a Jackie Chan movie directed by Martin Campbell; this is very much a Martin Campbell movie starring Jackie Chan. It’s an immaculately shot, deliberately paced political thriller with sudden bursts of hardcore action from Chan. Much ink has been spilled over how little screentime Chan recieves compared to Brosnan (at least compared to the Chan-heavy marketing), but to think that his role is minor would be a huge mistake. His character, Quan, looms large over every scene regardless of whether he is onscreen. Brosnan’s Hennessy may represent the plot, but Quan is very much the film’s heart. It helps that both actors are giving some of their best performances in recent memory (if ever).
For much of the film, the story focuses on Hennessy maneuvering through the minefield of his ex-IRA associates and the British officials who he’s forced to answer to. He needs to get to the bottom of who did the bombing if for no other reason than to save his career. Before he knows it, the quaint old immigrant who won’t stop calling him becomes the biggest threat of all. Quan has nothing left to lose, which means that his search is absolutely relentless. His tactics to intimidate Hennessy become more and more bold; phone calls turn to breaking and entering before finally graduating to improvised explosives and incapacitated bodyguards.
The action is fast and direct, eschewing much of the flourish that Chan is known for. The film doesn’t try to dance around the fact that Quan (and Chan, for that matter) is in his 60s. His skills are impressive, but you also see the toll it takes on him and his body. He sustains some pretty nasty injuries, but unlike the rest of Chan’s body of work it’s never played for laughs; it just makes YOU hurt.
The film’s handfull of fight scenes are uncharacteristically short for Chan, though hardly devoid of impressive stunt work. With Casino Royale, Campbell proved adept at crafting cinematically impressive fight scenes without resorting to the shaky cam nonsense that was dragging down the quality of most western action films at the time. This might not be Chan’s best fight work, but the action serves the tone of the film well without ever feeling like a distraction from the story at hand.
When he’s not fighting or making bombs out of materials you can buy in a 7Eleven, Chan is giving one of his most subtle performances to date. True fans are all too familiar with his recent Hong Kong work and have seen his push toward serious acting. But where many of those attempts devolved into melodrama, the character of Quan gives him a chance to play a mostly silent and subdued protagonist. He is a man in mourning; an ex-soldier who sees the cruel irony of what’s happening to him.
Brosnan is terrific as the sleazy but desperate Hennessy. He somehow manages to project an air of power and intimidation despite the world closing in on him. The film spends a lot of time with him and he carries much of the political plotting. His scenes with Chan are sadly rare but each one has a lot of significance as the power dynamic between the two men changes drastically between encounters.
One thing that I’ve always found fascinating about Martin Campbell’s work in Casino Royale is how it portrayed Bond. On the surface he seemed like he had the ideal life, but there were plenty of hints of just how damaged and futureless the character was. By the end, when he has officially “become Bond” and the classic music starts playing it doesn’t feel triumphant; we’re seeing a man who has let go of his humanity and embraced his true sociopath. Campbell exposed the action hero archetype for what he truly was: a psychopath who just happened to work for the good guys.
With The Foreigner, Campbell continues this exploration but in a different way. Quan is a man whose life was once defined by violence and killing. When we see him at the start of the film, he has obviously done a lot to put that life behind him and find whatever peace he can. When tragedy forces him into action, all that is ripped away from him. Quan is a deeply tragic character who is constantly suffering. His body is barely holding out as he pursues his revenge and it becomes hard to imagine any scenario where things work out well for him. Unlike some other action heroes (who often represent male power fantasy), you’d never want to BE Quan…. Instead, you can’t help but feel pity for him.
The Foreigner won’t change your life, but it will entertain you. It’s an elegant mashup of political thriller and revenge mission with a hint of Hong Kong action thrown in for good measure. It’s the kind of film we’ve wanted to see Chan make for a long time and it’s opening a world of possibilities for the 63 year old action star. Even if you don’t catch this in theaters (it’s a busy season for good movies), definitely check this film out if for no other reason than to see two actors who we all thought were washed-up, surprise us.