A grim political revenge thriller.
On the surface, The Foreigner promises to be Jackie Chan’s return to large scale action thrillers, and for what it’s worth, the film succeeds in that regard. What most audience members might not be expecting, though, is for the film to also be a strange combination between a Taken-esque revenge story and a convoluted political thriller involving the British government and a new faction of angry, young IRA terrorists. Those two storylines should not be able to exist in the same film, which makes it a testament to how much The Foreigner gets right, that the two very different plots manage to combine together as well as they do.
It doesn’t hurt that director Martin Campbell has placed two capable acting veterans at the forefront of the film, in Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan. Both actors are tasked with inhabiting roles that are antithetical to the on screen personas they’re most well-known for. Brosnan, for his part, trades in his suave, Bond-like heroic swagger to play a corrupt politician who often closely resembles a mob boss, while Chan turns in a grim and quiet performance, directly contrary to the comedic roles most American audiences associate him with.
Adapted from Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel The Chinaman, the film takes place in modern-day London and Belfast, where a new group of terrorists known as the “Authentic IRA” claim responsibility for a London bombing that kills over a dozen civilians and leaves many more injured. Among the casualties is the daughter of Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan), a Chinese restaurant owner with a history serving in the Vietnam-era special forces. Left without any other family members to comfort him, Quan makes it his mission to find those responsible for the bombing and bring them to justice.
Quan’s mission eventually leads to him crossing paths with Brosnan’s Liam Hennessy, a politician with violent roots in the pre-Good Friday Agreement IRA, but who dedicated the latter half of his life to bettering the relations between Ireland and England, while also keeping his pockets full and political appeal high. And with his possible connections to the new IRA-orchestrated bombings stuck in secrecy, Quan begins an explosive crusade to scare and threaten Hennessy until he, as Quan believes he will, reveals the names of the Authentic IRA members responsible for the bombing.
Quan’s mission is about as straightforward as it comes, and when Chan periodically mows through all of Hennessy’s guards and defenses, The Foreigner lives up to its dark tone and premise. But The Foreigner is also much more of a two-hander than any of the trailers or synopses have let on, and the B-plot involving Hennessy working his way through all of his connections to try and secure his political position takes up a shockingly high amount of the film’s runtime. And with enough twists and turns to feel more like a political thriller than anything else, one could be forgiven if they forget that The Foreigner has been sold as being a straightforward revenge story while watching it.
Under the control of any other director, The Foreigner could have very easily become a jumbled mess of a film, but Martin Campbell (who directed Brosnan as Bond in GoldenEye before rebooting that franchise with Casino Royale) is able to streamline all of the action and political machinations in a way that makes them as digestible as they possibly could. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t still suffer from its ambitious narrative, and The Foreigner often stumbles over having to adapt the source material’s 1990s roots for the modern day, as multiple characters are forced to explain the history between the IRA and British government before then further explaining the actions of its central terrorist group.
But as he did with films like Casino Royale, Campbell directs the film’s action sequences in such a visceral, intense fashion that they often land with maximum impact. And while he may not be playing for slapstick comedy this time around, Chan is as entertaining to watch in The Foreigner as he has ever been, and the ways in which he takes down Hennessy’s guards makes Chan out to be a truly powerful onscreen combatant. That includes one action sequence set in a modest Irish bed and breakfast, which many will justifiably tout as being the film’s greatest achievement.