If you, like me, saw the trailer for The Foreigner and thought Jackie Chan wants to get some of that Taken action, then you, like me, will be pleasantly surprised that The Foreigner is not a Taken knock-off. It’s a revenge thriller, so it’s in the same genre, but The Foreigner has more in common with John Wick, in that it’s dumb in a smart way. The plot is 1990’s action movie stupid, but it is also straightforward, and all information relates back to the plot. It’s a very tight, clean narrative. Characters are given just enough texture to be believable, everyone’s motivations are clear, and everyone behaves in accordance with those motivations. Too often movies like this throw out the rule book for the sake of spectacle, but The Foreigner never sacrifices its own logic for a cheap thrill.
Adapted from a 1992 novel by Stephen Leatherman called The Chinaman, which explains a lot about the Nineties vibes, The Foreigner—good title upgrade—stars Jackie Chan as QuanNgoc Minh, the alert-bordering-on-overprotective father of teenaged Fan (Katie Leung, AKA Cho Chang). They live in London, where Quan owns a restaurant, and Fan is excited to go to a school dance. A bomb planted by the “New IRA”, however, kills Fan and sets Quan on a nothing-left-to-lose path of revenge.
Enter smarmy Belfast politician Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, who is Irish, sporting a hilarious Northern Irish accent), who has ties to the 1.0 version of the IRA and has been the First Deputy Second Minister of Irish Troubles since the armistice. If you’re not totally up on the current state of Anglo-Irish relations, this might be a little confusing, and it required some Googling on my part after the movie. Honestly, I still don’t really know what Liam Hennessy’s job is, except that he’s ex-IRA and involved with the British government. Which is really all that matters. The Foreigner is generally good at skating past fine print in favor of getting on with the story, but when trying to remember what Liam did for this review, I drew a blank.
What is emphasized is that Liam is ex-IRA and still has contacts with that crowd. That’s why, in his grief, Quan zeroes in on Liam, looking for answers regarding who killed his daughter. Through their contact, it is revealed that Quan has his own particular set of skills, and he uses them to increasingly dramatic effect to try and flush out answers when Liam proves cagey.
Like all Jackie Chan movies, The Foreigner features lots of action and terrific stunts, but you may notice that, unlike all Jackie Chan movies, the action sequences are shorter and less frequent than in Chan’s heyday. He is now in his sixties, and a lifetime of bone-crunching stunt work has clearly taken a toll. He can still deliver, but there’s a calculation about his fight choreography now. When he goes for it, he really goes for it, but the film is designed to not make him go for it too much, and also emphasizes his age by showing Quan taking his fair share of licks. Chan isn’t invincible, and now, no longer are his characters.
This puts a more human face on the movie, though. Because Chan can’t do non-stop action, he actually gets to act. He’s always been underrated for his actual acting ability, and with Quan he’s got something to chew on, playing Quan’s suicide mission with a burnt-out fatalism that makes more sense as the movie progresses and we learn more about Quan’s past. The extra non-action room also allows for Liam Hennessy to be fleshed out more than your usual B-movie bad guy. There is, in fact, a very satisfying subplot on Liam’s side of the story about his nephew, Sean (Rory Fleck Byrne, The Quiet Ones), which would not exist in a dumber movie.
The Foreigner is not breaking new ground. Besides the tangle of Anglo-Irish politics, it’s not a hard movie to track. But it is exceptionally well made (and goes a long way to restoring director Martin Campbell after Green Lantern’s belly flop), and the performances of Chan and Brosnan are really solid. It might look like Taken, but don’t be fooled. The Foreigner is a simple story told well, so really, it couldn’t be less like Taken.