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 Chan's Back 

Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan
STX Entertainment
 113 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Martin Campbell
Starring: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan 
The Foreigner

Jackie Chan is one of the most unique talents in the history of motion pictures. In his prime, he blended brilliant martial arts moves with an amazing flair for physical comedy and an enormously likable on-screen persona, a combination that made him one of the most popular actors in the world for years. But time and age have taken their toll on Chan as they have on many other talented physical comics. The instincts are still there, but the body simply can’t perform as it once did. As a result, at age 63, Chan has gone in a new direction, largely abandoning the happy-go-lucky guy audiences loved in favor of an obviously older and more world-weary character in his new movie The Foreigner. The results are somewhat of a mixed bag. Despite his age, Chan still holds his own in combat scenes and does a credible acting job as well, but the rest of the movie struggles to keep up with its star.


In The Foreigner, Chan plays Quan, the owner of a Chinese restaurant who is devoted to his high-school aged daughter, his only living relative. In the movie’s opening sequence, however, his daughter is blown to bits before Quan’s eyes, collateral damage in a terror attack launched by a group that calls iself the “authentic IRA.” A grief-stricken Quan gets the polite brushoff from police, who assure him they are pursuing every lead but then sees a news program indicating that former IRA member Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), now a British government official in Northern Ireland, may be able to tell Quan who the bombers are.


It turns out that Hennessy is very interested in discovering the identity of the bombers, in part because they threaten the peace process in Northern Ireland (and some hoped-for pardons for IRA members currently in prison) and in part because he’s got a bit too close ties of his own to the group. However, Hennessy wants nothing to do with Quan and at first, like the police tried earlier, simply ignores him. That proves to be a big mistake, not simply because Quan is played by Jackie Chan. He also happens to be a top operative recruited and trained by the U.S. during the Vietnam War and an expert at all forms of guerilla and other warfare. So an unperturbed Quan has no problem setting off a bomb in Hennessy’s office building, or taking the fight to Ireland where he threatens Hennessy at his estate. Although Hennessy imports seemingly dozens of bodyguards and mercenaries to deal with the problem, Quan easily eludes or overpowers them.


While audiences will easily identify with Quan and his attempt to get justice or revenge for his daughter, Hennessy’s dealings with the various factions in both the IRA and the British government will be somewhat more difficult to understand, at least for American viewers. While I’m not normally a fan of gratuitous narrative information dumps in movies, especially fast paced thrillers or action films, a bit more background would have been helpful here. It’s pretty clear in the movie that Hennessy is playing both ends against the middle and that there is a lot of double dealing going on, but it’s not too clear just what that middle is.


And that, in a nutshell, is the major problem with The Foreigner. It almost plays like two movies in one, a simple revenge film with Quan looking to mow down whoever was responsible for his daughter’s death, and a tricky espionage thriller with Hennessy trying finesse his way out of trouble from both Quan and the actual terrorists. It doesn’t help matters that none of the supporting roles are particularly well written or played by any actors who are at all memorable. Further, Brosnan and several of the other Irish cast members speak in thick brogues. The result is an attempt at a thriller that’s far too often tepid or downright confusing.


Part of this problem stems from the source material. The movie clearly takes place in the current day (social media, smartphone cameras and GPS devices play a big role), but it is based on a novel written in 1992 (with the unfortunate title of The Chinaman). The passage of a quarter of a century between book and film makes some of what appears on screen, while logical for a 1992 novel, ridiculous for a 2017 film. The Quan character in the book was trained by U.S. forces in Vietnam and came to England in the early 1980’s with his young daughter. Yet somehow, that same child is still in high school in 2017. Further, the book features an ongoing guerilla war in Northern Ireland (Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games, written at roughly the same time, has somewhat the same background). Against this background, a 50-ish Hennessy, some 20 years separated from the worst violence in Northern Ireland, is credible. After the peace accords, the 60-ish Brosnan just doesn’t fit into the plot, and his whole storyline never quite works.


What does work in The Foreigner, however, is Jackie Chan. Of course, Chan is not as nimble as he used to be, but he still is capable of dishing it out, as he does in the various fights and chases in the movie. Wisely, the script doesn’t call for him to take on dozens of villains at once as he did in his martial arts days, but the fights against a handful of opponents are well staged and, it’s clear he’s still doing his own stunt work. Further, Chan no longer miraculously emerges unscathed from combat. Instead, he takes his lumps in these fights or when trying to go out windows and across rooftops as he does in one sequence. The stunt work is still extraordinary, but it has the added benefit of seeming very credible. And, as Quan takes his lumps, the characters’ suffering becomes even more noticeable.


As a blueprint for future Jackie Chan movies, The Foreigner aptly demonstrates that Chan, like Liam Neeson, still has a future in the genre. Unlike Neeson, however, he’s got an innately charismatic presence that all the physical and psychic lumps he takes in The Foreigner can’t disguise. Unfortunately, the movie’s overall storyline is weighed down by some questionable screenwriting and casting choices, beginning with the source material for the project itself. Chan fans and action movie fans in general should be more than willing to sit through the movie’s plot machinations to get to “the good stuff,” which proves to be quite good indeed. Jackie Chan has been a foreigner to movie screens for too long; it’s great to see him back in action. 

In this scene, Jackie Chan takes on some of Pierce Brosnan's henchmen.

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The Foreigner (2017) on IMDb