Action thriller The Foreigner marks the return of Jackie Chan to the silver screen. His last large role was in 2010 with The Karate Kid, but he’s had minor roles in both The Lego Ninjago Movie and the Kung Fu Panda series and is still very active in Chinese cinema. The director of The Foreigner is Martin Campbell, who previously worked on the James Bond franchise with Chan’s counterpart in the film, Pierce Brosnan.
The Foreigner is based off of the 1992 novel, The Chinaman, by Stephen Leather. Chan plays the “Chinaman,” but this is where things get a little muddled: though Chan himself is Chinese, Chan’s character, Ngoc Minh Quan, is Vietnamese. Following the Vietnam War, Quan fled to Hong Kong with his wife and two daughters as part of the Vietnamese boat people, only to have his two daughters raped and killed by Thai pirates on the journey and his wife die in childbirth with his youngest daughter. Quan raises this last daughter in London, where he opens up a Chinese restaurant as a naturalized citizen.
Soon after the film opens, his daughter, played by Katie Leung, best known for her role in the Harry Potter franchise as Cho Chang, dies in a terrorist bombing incident. A group that calls themselves “The Authentic IRA” claims responsibility for these attacks, and when the police fail to help Chan find who was responsible for setting the bomb that killed his daughter, he takes it into his own hands on a revenge mission. As an ex-Navy SEAL, Quan is more than capable of hunting down the terrorists, but The Foreigner is an unfortunate longshot from a Taken-esque quest for revenge.
For a movie that was touted as starring Jackie Chan, The Foreigner really doesn’t cover a whole lot of Jackie Chan. The movie follows two seemingly independent plot lines that converge with the character of Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a British government official. One is Quan chasing clues about the terrorists, which eventually lead him to Hennessy, and the other is Hennessy scrambling to keep his IRA past from coming to light. Quan’s relentless search for justice is an exhilarating flurry of fists and feet. Hennessy’s drama, however, is a bit of a flop.
Asians are a largely underrepresented group in Hollywood, and it is exciting to have a major movie such as The Foreigner starring an Asian actor. The trailers were filled with action shots of Chan on the run beating up the bad guys, but the movie itself was filled to the brim with white political blather. Brosnan plays a convincing role, but so much of the movie is dedicated to his political angst that was absent from the trailer. Although Hennessy is also working on finding the bombers, his method is centered around yelling into a phone and brooding stoically. Quan’s dynamic drama is undermined by frequent cuts to Hennessy and his associates standing around and reiterating what has happened in the movie so far. It’s repetitive and dry and by far the least interesting parts of the film, which is unfortunate, considering it’s also the bulk of the film.
For a movie with an Asian lead, one could hope that the rest of the cast would include more underrepresented racial groups as well. Unfortunately, The Foreigner portrays London in a way that could make one think that the Asian population of London was halved in one fell swoop after the death of Quan’s daughter.
The Foreigner is a dramatic breakaway from Chan’s past films. The story of a man who has lost everything is a stark contrast to the lighthearted, if not slightly arrogant buddy cop vibes of the Rush Hour franchise. The emptiness in Chan’s eyes throughout the movie is jarring, and it’s almost unsettling seeing him so hardened and haunted. While the overall lighting throughout the movie is bleak and grey (the setting is London, after all), Chan is constantly lit from underneath, emphasizing the age and weariness in his face. It can be a bit shocking, considering the last time his face had graced the American screens was nearly 10 years ago. True to Jackie Chan’s legacy, the 62-year-old performed all of his own stunts, and the combat scenes are a rush to watch. And despite the otherwise somber and serious tone, the film, backed by a stunning soundtrack, is sprinkled with just the right amount of gratuitous humor. Heavy on the electronica, the score sounds as if it were lifted from a video game, and the modernity of it is refreshing and memorable.
Chan is The Foreigner’s saving grace, and it’s worth watching for him alone. His portrayal of a grief-driven father pushed to the edge shows his versatility in a way the Western market hasn’t seen before. The scenes he’s in are suspenseful and gripping, but there’s enough humor in the movie to force out that breath you were holding in as laughter. The Foreigner had all the right elements to be a smash hit, had it just been focused more on Chan and less on Brosnan. The Foreigner is by no means a champion for the representation of Asians. Instead, Chan is drowned out and dragged down by the primarily white cast, despite being the poster child for the movie, though perhaps the trailer is to blame for setting false expectations. Overall, The Foreigner is an enjoyable film – there’s explosions, laughs, and a killer soundtrack – but is disappointing in its failure to reach its true potential.