The Foreigner is one of the stranger action movies you’re likely to see; a big budget, movie star vehicle action movie without a single likable or relatable character. And considering that it stars Jackie Chan, that’s kind of amazing.
Because Jackie Chan, in addition to being one of the two greatest physical comedians who ever lived (his only rival, Buster Keaton), specializes in playing nice guys. He’s got that big grin, and all that energy; he’s charming. He specializes in playing good guys who find themselves in circumstances where the only possible way out is through advanced martial arts. That’s the combination that makes Jackie Chan movies such a delight; astonishing action sequences, and preposterous plots. He’s a rescuer of innocents, an inadvertent foiler of dastardly schemes. Even Jackie’s occasional struggles with English are appealing. He’s sixty three, now, and not as quick with a punch or a fall, but this is a movie I marked on my calendar. A new Jackie Chan movie is not to be missed.
And he really can act. In The Foreigner, he plays Quan, a London restauranteur, and father of the lovely Fan (Katie Leung: Cho in the Harry Potter movies), a teenaged girl with a British boyfriend. She pops into a shop to buy a dress for a Big Date, which is promptly destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Quan is devastated. And for the rest of the movie, Chan plays this guy as someone who has essentially been destroyed emotionally, turning him completely single-minded. He is going to find and kill whoever killed his daughter. Nothing else matters; no power on earth can stop him. Beyond that one desire, he seems completely numb. It’s a tragic and moving performance. But not likable. His single-mindedness turns him into a end-justifies-the-means kind of guy; essentially, he becomes something of a terrorist too.
And he’s not much interested in doing detective work. The bombing was carried out by a newly-minted IRA splinter group. Quan sees on the news that a former IRA member, who has settled into a role as a British minister to Ireland, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), is trying to head up the effort to discover who bombed the store. So Quan focuses on Hennessey. Who, we discover, does in fact know a lot more than he’s saying to the Press. The movie becomes a cat-and-mouse duel between the two men, with Quan terrorizing Hennessey’s family to force Hennessey to tell him what he knows.
Hennessey’s no prize. It turns out, he has a mistress, Maggie, or Sarah, or something, superbly played by a fine actress named Charlie Murphy who I’d never heard of before. But Maggie/Sarah is one of the terrorists, and she sleeps with various men to further the nefarious terrorist plans, which also involve blowing up an airplane. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of political machinations involving Hennessey, his uneasy relationship with the British crown, represented by a cabinet minister, Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), with other Irish crime bosses, and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady), who despises him and may well betray him. I’m oversimplifying–the plot is more convoluted even than I’ve described it, but it’s all made clear in the picture.
Problem is, we don’t like any of them. The battle of wits between Quan and Hennessey is what carries the picture, and it’s edge-of-the-seat compelling. But we don’t actually care who wins, ultimately, because they’re all pretty awful people.
When I taught dramatic structure, I used to introduce students to two kinds of theatrical naturalism, which I called Naturalism A and Naturalism B. This is a Naturalism A structure, but it’s also an action movie, a melodrama. Melodramas have good guys and bad guys; heroes and villains. Naturalist pieces have no heroes, nor really any villains. Everyone’s just trying to survive. We’re to watch it dispassionately, with much attachment to any characters. That’s what this is. A cold-blooded, well-made, superbly acted exercise in pure detachment, with utterly amoral characters pursuing a fairly loathesome objective. I mean, is Quan seeking justice? Or just revenge? And what is the difference?
I found it fascinating, and riveting, and not remotely ingratiating. My wife was as fascinated as I was by it, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. If you’re expecting a Jackie Chan vehicle, a fun action/comedy, you’ll be disappointed too. If you don’t mind a pretty well made formalist exercise, and a chance for Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan to show off their acting chops, you’re more likely to find it to your taste.