Jackie Chan is a god. The man’s been doing his own stunts on film since 1973. Over the course of a career that spans 60-plus motion pictures, he’s broken parts of his body which resulted in injuries ranging from potential blindness to partial paralysis. By all accounts, Jackie Chan is a certifiable international action movie superstar. Now, can someone please tell that to the minds behind “The Foreigner”?
The newest addition to the action legend’s filmography, “The Foreigner,” based on the novel, “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather, finds Chan taking a more dramatic turn. After a terrorist bombing results in personal tragedy, Quan (Chan) doggedly seeks out the names of the bombers. He eventually confronts Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a politician with a less than reputable past, who may hold the answers that he’s looking for. Directed by Martin Campbell, only recently released from directorial prison after 2011’s abysmal “Green Lantern,” “The Foreigner” straddles a tenuous line between action and political cinema – a noncommittal attitude which robs the film of having any major satisfying conclusion.
Admittedly, the action genre is a fickle business. While Hollywood has seen a resurgence in the ‘simple plot’ action flick lately, there are still films with both intricate storylines and intensity and violence; they’re just harder to execute. Luckily for “The Foreigner,” Chan’s name is practically synonymous with entertaining action, and this movie is no exception.
From the close-quartered combat to the finesse with which he dispatches his enemies, Chan’s in peak form and proves age is only a number when it comes to defenestrating nameless Irish henchmen. In fact, the fight choreography actually leans into Chan’s older age as the action star takes an extra beat to get back up, patches up a myriad of wounds and grounds his more breathtaking stunts in an effort to match the ability of his character. No, the action isn’t the problem with “The Foreigner,” the film’s inability to balance its politicized narrative and pulpy genre roots is.
The film starts off well enough, with Chan giving one of his most compelling and reserved performances in a long while. This is not Jackie Chan the charismatic and comedic daredevil, but rather a more intimate performance allowing him to showcase his range as an actor. He’s a father seeking revenge, plain and simple, and when he clashes with Brosnan’s opportunist of a politician, the duo’s diametrically opposed personas allow for a deeper understanding of each other’s characterization. Their respective flaws and strengths support in laying a foundation for an action film that transcends simplicity without sacrificing exhilaration – that is, until the halfway mark.
Motion Picture Artwork/STXfilms/Courtesy
Subtly, though noticeably, “The Foreigner” sidelines Chan’s grief-stricken father for a helping of Irish political history and cheaply manufactured romantic tension. That’s not to say the subplots aren’t intriguing, but there’re just too damn many – rendering most of them seemingly excessive. There’s only so many times you can listen to Brosnan scream at a subordinate in an unfortunate Irish accent before you begin to wonder where Jackie Chan is.
Campbell and company retool a working plot by the beginning of the third act to flesh out some ancillary characters, but in doing so, undermine the overall pace and urgency of the movie. It’s undeniable that the filmmakers sought to capture the widespread sociopolitical machinations behind politically-motivated terrorism, but in a sub two-hour runtime, it’s better to fully develop a few characters (i.e., Brosnan and Chan) than tersely shine the spotlight on most.
In all honesty, “The Foreigner” could excel with some breathing room and medium that matches its filmmakers’ ambitions: episodic television. With a three to four episode stint on the likes of HBO, Showtime or AMC, the film could delve into each character and plot line it struggled to give screen time to. Their arcs would feel whole at the very least, and the action, pacing and wider story at play wouldn’t suffer because of them. If “The Foreigner” teaches anything, it’s the necessity of gradual, cohesive narrative and thematic build-up in action movies that seek to break the mold. Oh, and that if you’re lucky enough to make a movie starring Jackie Chan, please, for all that’s decent, do not waste him.