'The Foreigner': Film Review

An uneven mix of action and politics.

Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan star in Martin Campbell's London-set, China-U.K. co-production about a retired hitman avenging his daughter's death.

Based on Stephen Leather 's 1992 novel The Chinaman, Martin Campbell's first film in six years was rechristened The Foreigner possibly because of the discriminatory connotations of the original title. The new title is somehow fitting, with Jackie Chan's against-type performance pushed to the side in something more akin to a conspiracy thriller. Chan's sullen avenger might plant bombs, but the narrative is more concerned with multiple betrayals among Irish terrorists and political chicanery between them and the British political establishment.

In fact, while marketed widely as a Chan-led vehicle, The Foreigner's main focus is on the struggle of Pierce Brosnan's terrorist-turned-politician to contain the fallout of a series of bomb attacks across London — a situation that threatens his comfortable life as a top-ranking government minister in Northern Ireland. Credit is due for the film’s attempt to adapt Leather's story to current-day political realities. But the plot is convoluted and sprawling, bringing into play British politicians, police and secret services, and largely sidelines the tale's box-office raison d'être: its tale of a retired killer reactivating his skills to avenge the death of his daughter.

This emphasis on Northern Ireland's politics might have led to The Foreigner's subpar performance in China. Having opened on Sept. 30 in anticipation of the country's weeklong National Day holidays, The Foreigner has daily grosses half of those generated by the chart-topping, homegrown, mid-budget comedy Never Say Die. And this despite Campbell's film being released in 3D and benefiting from premium markups. Some Chinese viewers might have gone in expecting Chan's usual comic antics, which grossed $368 million for him this year alone in Railroad Tigers and Kung Fu Yoga.

At the screening this critic attended, the audience’s chattering, phone-fiddling exasperation was palpable, even in an upmarket cinema located in the cosmopolitan city of Shenzhen. Still, The Foreigner should easily recoup its reported $35 million budget in China alone, and Chan's fans and action-flick aficionados will embrace it when it opens in Australia, the U.S. and Russia on Oct. 12 and 13. British audiences who could potentially relate to the story the most are still out of The Foreigner's equation, with release dates in the U.K. as yet unconfirmed.

In the film's opening scene, Chan's pensioner-aged, London-based restaurateur Nguyen Minh Quoc is shown driving his daughter Fan (Katie Leung, Cho Chang in the Harry Potter franchise) to a party. Just moments after waving goodbye to her, she's dead, the victim of a bomb attack at the restaurant to which she was going. Quoc learns of how a band of terrorists from Northern Ireland orchestrated the bombing. Mired in a mix of grief and fury — a mental state Chan conveys surprisingly well — Quoc drops everything and heads to Belfast to get more information about Fan's killers.

His target is one Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), a leading Northern Ireland politician who has swapped his paramilitary past for a career in mainstream politics. His secret dealings with the British authorities risk putting his career or even his life in peril. With much bigger fish to fry, Hennessy meets Quoc but rebuffs his demand to know the identities of those who killed his daughter.

But he has underestimated this seemingly meek restaurant owner: Quoc's swift retaliation is to blow up the toilet of Hennessy's well-guarded office with a bomb created out of groceries. And this is just the start of the China-born, Vietnam-raised and U.S.-trained mercenary's relentless campaign to force Hennessy to deliver names.

As the politician seeks refuge at his country villa, Quoc follows, camping out in the woods and then terrorizing his security guard and finally confronting the man himself again. Quoc's incredible dexterity during the fights might be at odds with the slow and shuffling figure he cuts at the beginning of the film, but at least Chan manages to hold his usual comical streak back. He infuses all these scenes with ample grit and power, every blow and thud amplified by the film's sound design.

Quoc has one more big hurrah unleashing violent revenge on the baddies. Then again, his exploits could be seen as distracting from the main story about Hennessy, who has to confront dissent from a splinter paramilitary group and betrayal among his ranks and within his family. The chaos also reveals how he has sold out his ideals for a life of corrupting power, illicit lovers and clandestine deals with the British authorities which he once fought against as a young street fighter. While all this is happening to the politician in London and Belfast, Quoc's presence is easily forgotten.

Brosnan returns to his Irish roots with a vibrant performance as the conflicted and confused Hennessy, a character screenwriter David Marconi has modeled on real politicians: He wears a beard like the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and has a career trajectory like the late Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander who eventually became Northern Ireland's deputy first minister. While Brosnan has quite a few opportunities to show his acting chops, Chan makes do with less: The original novel contained much more about Quoc's motivations and deeds. In any case, it’s good to see Chan swapping his happy-go-lucky persona for two hours for some gravitas as a tragic rogue with a marked past. 

Production companies: The Fyzz Facility, Arthur Sarkissian, The Entertainer Production Company, in a STXfilms, Sparkle Roll Media Corporation, Wanda Media, Huayi Brothers Pictures presentation
Cast: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Tamia Liu, Katie Leung
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: David Marconi, from Stephen Leather's novel
The Chinaman
Producers: Jackie Chan, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Arthur M. Sarkissian, Qi Jianhong, Claire Kupchak, John Zeng, Scott Lumpkin, Jamie Marshall, Cathy Schulmann
Executive producers: Zhao Lei, Jiang Defu, Joe Tam, Cary Cheng, Karl Li, Liu Xinxuan, Sunny Sun, David Marconi, Philip Button, Penny Jiang, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Donald Tang, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Oren Aviv
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Alex Cameron
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editor: Angela M. Catanzaro
Casting: Debbie McWilliams

Rated R, 116 minutes