At first glance, “The Foreigner” looks like a movie destined for the bargain bin at your local retail store. It has all the markings of B-movie schlock: a violent revenge tale with a rather problematic title (though far better than that of the novel it was based on: “The Chinaman”) where an immigrant father (Jackie Chan, “Rush Hour”), who happens to be ex-Special Forces, wreaks havoc on the men he believes to be responsible for the bombing that caused the death of his only living daughter (the others lost to the political conflict that drove him from his country). As viewers, you know you’re going to get what you paid for: Chan, the world’s foremost master of kicking ass and making it look effortless, doing exactly that. However, the most dramatic Hollywood role of Chan’s career, along with a script with a surprisingly dark political heart, makes this brutal vendetta tale much more nuanced than expected.
The film follows the aforementioned “foreigner,” Quan, as he makes life a living hell for Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, “Goldeneye”), a former IRA leader who’s turned things around as a stuffy Irish deputy minister who’s abandoned bombs for politics. The bombing that took Quan’s daughter’s life was perpetrated by a group claiming to be the “Authentic IRA,” a violent offshoot of the original movement that feels the peace accords between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are nothing but a shameful surrender. Quan is convinced that Hennessy can give him the identity of the bombers, despite the minister’s increasingly flummoxed claims that he’s left his IRA life behind him. Desperate for answers and his vengeance, Quan takes the battle to Hennessy and his posse of former foot-soldiers, setting off dirty bombs where Hennessy works and living and fighting like Rambo in the woods near the minister’s home until he gets what he wants.
Quan certainly isn’t the most fleshed out character ever put to screen, but Chan’s performance proves that he doesn’t need to be. Chan, known typically in the States as a more comedic and loose actor, plays the role with an aching sadness and determination that compliments the film’s events nicely. The character doesn’t have to weep, explain his dark past or monologue at his enemies to show his pain to the audience; it’s seen organically and poignantly as he convincingly mourns amongst the belongings of the only family had he left, fights with raw power and acts relentless in his determination. Chan perfectly captures all the ache and anxiety that can come with being an immigrant in a strange land and all the guilt and horror of being someone left behind. Combine that with the willpower for vengeance and you have a complex English role finally worthy of one of the world’s biggest stars.
While Chan delivers, it’s actually the film’s rather bleak commentary about Irish-British relations and the nature of modern terrorism that saves the film from being dangerously offensive. In context of larger issues in England and Ireland, from Brexit to numerous terrorist acts, the film’s premise feels a little exploitative in its timing. However, as we watch Brosnan’s character and other minor players argue bitterly over the direction of their movement, the scope of their violence and the future of their homeland, it becomes clear it’s trying to be more than a simple political-action thriller. The script isn’t strong enough to support this, necessarily, as the dialogue is often clunky, and the endless array of subplots can often feel tacked on. However, as Chan and Brosnan’s two men of action face off, both haunted by violent pasts they tried to escape, we see the price of imperialism on display. Their duality drives the film to be one that still gives audiences what they paid for, yet tries to makes them think a bit in the process. It may not work entirely, but it’s an admirable quality in a time where action movies are getting dumber as the world seemingly gets darker.