What is 'The Foreigner?'

Jackie Chan takes on Pierce Brosnan in story of vengeance


"The Foreigner" is the latest Jackie Chan outing. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“The Foreigner” is not a Jackie Chan movie. Chan does star as the titular foreigner Ngoc Minh Quan — a British expat from China with a bloody past. But Chan is famous for his impressive library of light-hearted kung fu flicks. “The Foreigner,” on the other hand, has more in common with darker action movies like “Taken.” The film is also not a “Jackie Chan movie” in the sense that it belongs just as much to Chan’s co-star, Pierce Brosnan, who plays Irish deputy minister and former Irish Republican Army leader Liam Hennessy.

Although “The Foreigner” is backdropped against contemporary politics, the film is not a work of political commentary. The film’s plot centers heavily on the IRA and Ireland-United Kingdom relations, but it has nothing in particular to assert about either subject. Such details are mainly used to inform the characters’ motivations and provide sufficient set-up for the action scenes.

So “The Foreigner” must just be an action thriller then, right? Well, no. A large part of the movie is character drama and political intrigue, with a healthy but relatively small amount of screentime devoted to the action.

It is simply unfair, however, to judge “The Foreigner” by what it is not — by the things that one might expect from simply knowing that it stars Chan or has action or involves terrorism. “The Foreigner” is, plainly put, a movie, and it deserves to stand on its own merits as such.

More specifically, “The Foreigner” is a movie adaptation of a 1992 novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather. In the film, Ngoc Ming Quan is trying to live an ordinary life as a restaurant owner in London with his teenage daughter — until she’s killed by a bomb planted by a renegade offshoot of the IRA. Quan becomes obsessed with vengeance, and he embarks on a fiery quest to reach the person most equipped to find the bombers, deputy minister Liam Hennessy. However, things aren’t so clear-cut for Hennessy, who must navigate a labyrinth of lies and private agendas to locate the bombers.

Although the aforementioned summary might sound a tad complicated, the events are actually quite easy to follow — except maybe for those who have difficulty parsing English and Irish accents — and even steps into cliché in some areas. Rather than trying to carry one big complex plot, the movie juggles a bunch of simple pieces. It is well-presented enough to carry the first half of the film rather effectively. However, the various moving parts don’t come together quite as effectively as they should, leaving the second half lacking in climactic tension.

At its core, the plot is driven by the action, as the film emphasizes a theme of violence begetting violence. Almost all the action involves Chan, who delivers a different flavor of combat than typical American action stars. Whereas some big names like Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson prefer to play up personas of invincibility and unflinching perseverance in the face of adversity, Jackie has always managed to convey human weakness through glimpses of pain and annoyance, regardless of how powerful his characters are. Those glimpses are brought to the forefront in “The Foreigner,” as Chan is now a 63-year-old-man in character as a 61-year-old man. Intense focus is brought to the beleaguered manner in which he moves and the great pain that he suffers, making his otherwise inhuman feats of violence seem all the more impressive. It is a curious case of great action brought about through a “lame” action performance.

However, the same cannot quite be said of Chan’s character performance. Chan attempts to convey grief through quiet stillness — the effect is convincing for some scenes but in others comes across as rather wooden. Fortunately, this is the only dodgy performance in the film. All of the supporting actors achieve exactly what they are called upon to do, and Brosnan deserves applause for his ability to summon great intensity and convey a wealth of emotions through subtle actions.

Overall, “The Foreigner” is a simple story well told. It’s not particularly amazing at anything — it’s just good at everything it does. The characters are solidly written and well-acted, the action is intense and the story is mostly well-crafted. The film isn’t exactly unique, but it’s nowhere near as generic as some of the lower-grade stuff that Chan’s been releasing like “Kung Fu Yoga” or that Bruce Willis will soon release like “Death Wish.” It offers a violent story of vengeance, of men who embrace the worst parts of themselves, of histories laid to rest only to be dug up again. “The Foreigner” is well worth a watch for those who can put aside their grand expectations.

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