We are living in a post-Taken world. It’s been almost 10 years since the little action thriller that could made back ten times its budget and catapulted Liam Neeson, of all people, into the pantheon of modern action cinema heroes. In its wake, there has been a resurgence in the “moody mid-budget meat-and-potatoes action thriller starring old guys” genre, and it’s even developed its own little pocket of auteurs and auteurists. The Foreigner, the latest entry into this cycle, brings two new faces into the fray. One is Kiwi director Martin Campbell, a 45-year industry veteran best known for his two James Bond films, and action legend Jackie Chan, one of cinema’s greatest performers full stop, now well into his third-act dark period.
Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan, a retired Vietnam War vet who runs a Chinese restaurant in South London. His daughter Fan (Katie Leung, who is instantly likeable for the few minutes she’s on screen) dies in a bombing claimed by the “Authentic IRA.” Now despondent, living in a grief-induced fugue, Quan searches for answers, ultimately latching onto Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan, doing his best Gerry Adams), a former IRA member now working as the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. When his persistence is rewarded with little but platitudes, Quan busts out every move in the special-ops playbook, using long-dormant but clearly undulled skills to get answers by any means necessary.
Chan and Brosnan (combined age 127) lean hard into the darkness, each revelling in the opportunity to play heel. Chan’s performances is especially of note. His characters have often been down on their luck, in over their heads, or otherwise caught on the back foot; that’s the nature of his comedic performances. The Foreigner sees Chan at his most world-weary and impotent, engulfed by entropy, moved now only by the siren song of revenge. But Chan doesn’t completely abandon the flying fists that made him famous; the few set pieces where he engages in hand-to-hand combat are thrilling and visceral, with Campbell lending them a clarity and brutality befitting the ruthlessness of the material. Brosnan’s heavy is duplicitous and unethical, sure, but is somehow palatable next to the more unscrupulous double-dealers of his inner circle. The script, adapted from a Stephen Leather novel by Enemy of the State scribe David Marconi, is thick with backstabbing and treachery, moving at the healthy clip of an airport paperback. This web of deceit alone would be enough to make The Foreigner a taut political thriller, but because we sometimes live in a just universe, in the middle of this taut political thriller is Jackie Chan channelling John Rambo.
The film is not demonstrably different from pulpy, politically dubious DTV garbage from the 80s involving upstart terrorist cells, retired special ops seeking revenge, hunting people for sport in the woods, or any combination thereof. The major difference between The Foreigner and, say, Deadly Prey is the former’s air of seriousness and professionalism. It trades in cheap thrills, sure, but it streamlines them into a slick set piece delivery device presented with a gravitas this kind of material doesn’t always invite. Cinematographer David Tattersall succeeds in making every room look like it’s concealing vital information; Cliff Martinez rattles off another effortlessly cool, pulsating score. The key question is how cheap can you make your thrills before they start to feel weird. Summoning the old ghosts of the Troubles seems like an ill-conceived idea on the best of days, as does coupling it with a bomb attack on the Westminster Bridge four months after the terrorist attack there. But thankfully, at its core, this is not a movie about making things go kablooey in the name of political advancement; it’s a movie about the blinding force of opportunism and the toxic link between violence and potency, a thrill ride where it’s not a matter of who backstabs who, but when and how.
Directed by Martin Campbell; written by David Marconi; adapted from The Chinaman by Stephen Leather; starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Michael McElhatton, Liu Tao, Charlie Murphy, Orla Brady, and Katie Leung; 114 minutes.