Review: 'The Foreigner'

Friday, October 13, 2017

East Beats West

2017 / UK, China, USA / Dir. by Martin Campbell / Opens in wide release on October 13, 2017

by:
Andrew Wyatt

The Foreigner is a broken film, but it is broken in such an oddly narrow way that it still manages be entertaining, and even mildly invigorating within the limits of its generic formulae. The film’s fundamental flaw is that it is, in fact, two films. These features have been wedged together and then obliged to intermittently and awkwardly interact. The Foreigner’s incongruent pieces hail from related but distinct subgenres: the high-tech counter-terrorism thriller and the grim, ultra-violent revenge actioner. Perhaps there is a way to resolve these two aspects into a single, seamless story, but The Foreigner rather decisively fails to achieve such a feat of unification.

Directed by action veteran Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale), the film was adapted by David Marconi from British author Stephen Leather’s 1992 page-turner The Chinaman. Straightaway, that name change signals the film’s carelessness. Bowdlerizing the novel’s racially offensive title in favor the neutral ‘Foreigner’ makes perfect sense commercially, but the alteration just ends up seeming incoherent. The titular character is Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan), whose background is left somewhat murky, but seems to be an ethnically Chinese ex-soldier-of-fortune from Vietnam. Formerly allied with the RVN and Americans during the Vietnam War—picking up some Navy SEAL training along the way from the latter—he immigrated to England after the Fall of Saigon, became a naturalized British citizen, and opened a Chinese restaurant. That was four decades ago, so Quan is actually not a foreigner in the context of this London- and Belfast-based thriller. What's more, the title adjustment evidently hasn't filtered down to the screenplay’s dialog, as the heedless white characters consistently refer to him as a ‘Chinaman.’

Quan’s wife and two of his daughters were slain by Thai pirates during the family's escape from Vietnam, and he is accordingly devoted to his remaining and youngest daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), now a university student. Unfortunately, poor Fan doesn’t even make it to the opening credits: She is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, set off in a bustling shopping district, while Quan is occupied parking their car. This shattering loss sends Quan off on a dead-eyed mission of vengeance. He searches ploddingly but relentlessly for the bombers, who, in a message to the press, refer to themselves as ‘The Authentic IRA’. Quan suspects that North Ireland Sinn Féin MP Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) knows something about the plot. With good reason: The silver-haired, bespectacled politician was once an IRA freedom fighter himself. Arrogant and tightly-wound, Hennessy behaves suspiciously, but in internal meetings with fellow reformed terrorists, he seems authentically livid, demanding that they uncover and stamp out the renegade faction.

This is where Marconi’s script and Campbell’s direction go awry, as The Foreigner struggles to tell two stories simultaneously. On the one hand, it’s an engaging, surprisingly labyrinthine ensemble piece about the British effort to track down the terrorists prior to the next bomb attack—as well as Hennessy’s furious, desperate attempts to root out the radical moles within the (officially) disarmed IRA. On the other hand, the film is a bloody revenge story about Quan’s personal crusade to kill the bombers, a plan that mainly entails methodically terrorizing Hennessey until the minister gives him the names of the perpetrators. Quan does this by exploding his own homemade bombs—precisely and non-lethally, the film assures the viewer—at Hennessey’s office and country house. And also by beating the ever-loving crap out of the politician’s small army bodyguards.

What The Foreigner represents, then, is a clumsy amalgam. It's a stark post-Troubles drama in the vein of Five Minutes of Heaven, presented in the slick vernacular of a 21st-century British television thriller. It's also a Jackie Chan variation on the ‘rampage of revenge’ feature wherein a fifty- or sixty-something slumbering lion is roused to become a lethal badass. (As always, Taken is the reference point for this subgenre, and Liam Neeson its patron saint.) These two modes co-exist gawkily in Campbell’s film, not so much tonally dissonant as narratively at odds with one another. The Foreigner plainly wants the viewer to root for Quan in several capacities: as the grieving parent to the victim of a violent terrorist act; as an ex-warrior who's suffered the loss of everything he loves; as the overlooked and underestimated older Asian man living in the West; and as a hard-working citizen who is fed up with the sluggish pace of British justice. However, the film spends far too little time with its ostensible hero, instead preferring to simmer in the byzantine politics and espionage of the IRA plot. The viewer is consequently left with two half-baked films rather than one complete feature.

The truly frustrating dimension to this ugly fusion is that both of The Foreigner’s stories are, if not great, at least decent enough to deserve more than half a movie. Even though Chan is the face of the film’s marketing campaign, Campbell oddly gives the actor the smaller serving of attention, at least in terms of story and screen time. (There is a middle passage in the film where Quan disappears for so long that some viewers may forget about him entirely.) At 63, Chan is still astonishingly fast and lithe, but he has unquestionably reached a point in his career where he can no longer pull off the elite level of nimble kung fu choreography and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts that were once his bread and butter. However,The Foreigner doesn’t demand bleeding-edge physical feats from him, nor is it a showcase for Chan the slapstick goofball. Quan is a broken shell of a man who has nothing left to lose, and to that end Chan portrays him as a defeated, slump-shouldered zombie, only snapping out of his daze in those moments when vengeance or survival demands that he become a viper.

While his fight scenes are paradoxically somewhat flavorless compared to the the film’s political and counter-terrorism segments, Chan brings an almost affectless menace to his character that is unsettling in part because it looks so uncanny on him. (The habitually grinning actor almost never smiles here.) For the role of Quan, he assumes an old man’s reserved demeanor and pained weariness, an explicit subversion of the actor’s established movie star image. This is The Hustler of Jackie Chan Movies, in that a normally voluble comic performer assumes a comparatively quiet, steady stance for a dramatic role.

Quan’s bleak tale of vengeance is atypical but sturdy enough, as Jackie Chan action features go. The problem is that it’s only about 40% of The Foreigner. The rest of the film consists of a Britain-spanning story of military and political intrigue, centered primarily on Hennessy as the ambitious career politician with uncertain loyalties. This portion of the film is likewise sturdy enough as thrillers go, and sufficiently unusual in its specifics to be a stimulating take on a familiar premise. The plot is sprawling and complex: It’s essentially a British intelligence procedural steeped to a surprising degree in the particulars of Northern Ireland’s history and politics. (The preservation of the Good Friday Agreement and the status of the IRA’s old weapons dumps are significant plot elements.) 

Granted, there’s nothing in The Foreigner’s IRA story hasn’t been done before: the mole inside the organization; the radical splinter group; the personal and political betrayals; the bomb plot that relies on a civilian dupe; even an appropriately vile Lady Macbeth character. It’s all presented with a touch more Hollywood garishness than something like Eye in the Sky, or any given John le Carré adaptation. The plot is convoluted, and the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence enough to take a restrained, more realistic approach. Accordingly, this is one of those films where the characters are always explaining their situations and motivations, and at length. Still, the dark, twisty story is reliably entertaining, with solid performances across the board, even in dismally archetypical roles. Hennessy is the focus of both the political turmoil and the film’s narrative attention, and the self-assured Brosnan plays him as a priggish, barking realist. However, his performance has enough slippery ambiguity and frank pathos that the viewer never quite knows what to make of Hennessy, at least until all the tumblers click into place in the final act.

The Foreigner never remotely resolves Quan’s and Hennessy’s stories in a way that makes sense, at least dramatically. The two men meet early in the film, Quan is given the brush-off, and thereafter the monomanical restauranteur-turned-Rambo dogs the minister’s steps, essentially threatening him with death unless he gives up his IRA buddies. For his part, Hennessy pursues his own internal investigation, excoriating his fellow ex-Provos and employing his Iraq veteran nephew as a manhunter and a go-between with MI5. The film keeps flitting between the myriad tentacles of the IRA plot, checking in with British counter-terrorism analysts, a disillusioned journalist, and the radical bombers themselves, before inevitably snapping back to Quan. It’s not apparent where Campbell wants the viewer’s attention and sympathies to be focused. The film’s climatic showdown—in which Quan and MI5 independently close in on the terrorists’ safehouse—is emblematic of The Foreigner’s dramatic dysfunction. Quan is the bruised and battered underdog (and Chan is the feature’s star), but the filmmakers expend so much effort on the counter-terrorism plot, it's actually sort of a letdown when Quan derails MI5’s plans with his one-man rampage. That’s an inexcusable blunder in a revenge story that should end with single-minded, cathartic release.

This conflict aside, The Foreigner is durable if unremarkable entertainment. For the fight scenes, Campbell relies on the same kind of classical, straightforward action that served him so well in Casino Royale, bestowing Daniel Craig’s inaugural Bond film with a dose of palate-cleansing brutishness. There are no instantly iconic shots or stunts in The Foreigner, but it’s nonetheless a showcase for solid, commendably coherent action of the messy, hard-boiled variety. It’s no John Wick, or even Atomic Blonde, but it gets the job done. However, the right-wing bent to the film’s political ethos, which at times borders on the viciously authoritarian, lends all the cinematic violence an ugly aftertaste. Unexpectedly, it’s not Quan’s Death Wish vigilantism that most disturbs, but Campbell’s matter-of-fact normalization of limitless surveillance, 24-style ‘ticking clock’ torture, and outright summary execution.

Rating: C+