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The Foreigner

The turgid revenge thriller "The Foreigner" is an all-around lousy movie. For starters: Jackie Chan, an action star who is struggling to find age-appropriate roles in his sixties, is barely in "The Foreigner," an adaptation of Stephen Leather's source novel. This is especially disappointing since Chan's Sparkle Roll Media production company is prominently foregrounded in the film's opening credits, and he's featured prominently in the film's marketing. Then again, maybe Chan's absence is for the best given how unconvincing his performance is as grieving 61-year-old ex-military man Quan. 

Quan is defined by his age, and his monomaniacal need to get eye-for-an-eye justice since his daughter was blown up in a bank explosion by an organization calling themselves "the Authentic IRA." So Chan is heavily made-up with exaggerated crow's feet, gigundo, raccoon-like bags around his eyes, and Party Giant-quality grey streaks in his hair. He also wears a mile-long face, and isn't as energetic or graceful as he has been in superior recent films like "Chinese Zodiac" or "Railroad Tigers." Chan also tends to vanish for long stretches at a time while a bunch of British and Irish diplomats, policemen, and terrorists talk, debrief, and generally drown viewers in a convoluted story of political intrigue. Imagine all the worst parts of a Robert Ludlum novel—overlong expository dialogue, monotonous and all-too-brief action scenes, and a hero who can never be found when you need him—and replace Jason Bourne with Jackie Chan playing an unflattering Charles Bronson-type character and you have "The Foreigner."

Much of "The Foreigner" revolves around the back-channel dealings of Irish diplomat Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former-IRA member who is now hellbent on protecting his decades-long legacy of diplomacy with the British. So he does what any Bourne-style politico does: he gathers a bunch of guys in a boardroom, and he yells at them about how he wants to know who the Authentic IRA is—names, dates, camera footage, etc. Turn over every stone, shake every tree, climb every mountain—he wants those guys yesterday! Hennessy, an antihero defined by Brosnan's atrocious Irish accent and a forehead peppered with liver spots that seem to proliferate with every extreme closeup, spends a lot of time on the phone, and drinking Scotch. He also does what every other Bourne-style government wonk does: repeatedly curse out his men about how they're always a few steps behind the Authentic IRA, and Quan, the latter of whom has declared a personal war on Hennessy since the Irishman has previously worked with the IRA.

We pause to reflect on the anti-Irish/British politics of "The Foreigner." Why, exactly, do we need a movie that condemns the Irish for having a violent past, despite recent peaceful collaboration with the Brits? Why Irish terrorism, of all things, in a year where institutionalized misogyny and White Nationalism have become unavoidable topics? Chan has, in the past, spoken out against anti-Chinese-government protesters. So it's not too much of a leap in logic to imagine that his reactionary real-life politics might lead him to disdain terrorists who become politicians. Still: this is the problem he feels should be exploited for an action film? Sure, everybody from a disenfranchised Thor to a newly-revived Paul Kersey wants revenge this year, but picking on the Irish is like diagnosing a gunshot victim's cankle as their most pressing concern.

Of course, there's a twist that you can see coming during the first few minutes. And there's a lot of monotonous, uninspired John Rambo/Bronson in "The Mechanic"-style booby-traps, and make-shift bomb shenanigans that ultimately lead to the most unintentionally funny scene of post-explosion fire-fighting you're likely to see this year (these guys are so bad at putting out fires that one guy repeatedly aims his hose at a fire-less roof). And there's a lot of exhausting and exhaustive backstory, none of which plays to Chan's talents as a performer, or director Martin Campbell's strengths as an action filmmaker. Campbell is best known as the helmer of the franchise-reviving James Bond films "Casino Royale" and "GoldenEye." But he was probably hired to direct "The Foreigner" because of his knack for cheesy revenge dramas, particularly the surprisingly okay 2010 "Edge of Darkness" remake. Sadly, none of that earlier film's knack for preposterous, testosterone-driven violence is here in "The Foreigner," possibly because "Edge of Darkness" screenwriter and meathead cinema poet laureate William Monahan didn't adapt "The Foreigner" too. 

As a result, watching "The Foreigner" is a thoroughly dispiriting experience. You wait for characters to take a break from gabbing about Hennessy's connections with everyone from old IRA members to, uh, newer IRA members. But when Chan finally does swing into action, it's in scenes that over-emphasize his character's age, and lack of coordination. Chan, as Quan, falls over himself far too much. He clearly has some moves, but his character is supposed to be old and slow. So Chan must get pummeled twice for every blow he lands. Sadly, the blows that Chan does dish out are graceless and mechanical. The choreography of these scenes is intentionally ragged, even if Campbell films them well enough. Chan may still be figuring out what he can and can't do in his old age. But dreck like "The Foreigner" should be swiftly crossed off his bucket list, and never revisited.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

The Foreigner movie poster

The Foreigner (2017)

Rated R for violence, language and some sexual material.

114 minutes


Jackie Chan as Quan Ngoc Minh

Pierce Brosnan as Liam Hennessy

Charlie Murphy as Maggie / Sara McKay

Katie Leung as Fan

Liu Tao as Keyi Lan


Writer (based on the novel "The Chinaman" by)





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