STX Entertainment will open The Foreigner in North America following a relatively successful release in China. The Huayi Brothers Pictures and Wanda Pictures production comes with a budget of $35 million, meaning it’s already a hit since it has made at least $78m in China as of Wednesday. The question is whether this (mostly) English language action thriller will give Jackie Chan another North American hit, as this is his first movie to get a wide theatrical release since The Karate Kid back in June of 2010.
The Foreigner, based on a novel by Stephen Leather and directed by Martin Campbell, is an old-school, politically-minded action thriller that technically pits Jackie Chan against Pierce Brosnan. The man who revived James Bond, twice, is directing Chan in an against-type role, as a sympathetic anti-hero waging a war on government operatives who may know the terrorists who killed his daughter. Whether this “the legend has returned” sell, along with an against-type casting, will translate into North American success beyond its global success is the question of the day. But even if it falls to Universal/Comcast Corp.’s Happy Death Day or various other holdovers (Blade Runner 2049, It, Kingsman), it’s already big in China.
There is a lot to like about Martin Campbell’s The Foreigner, but what most impressed me was how well it blended too almost opposing movies into one entertaining concoction, in a way that gives neither story short shrift. The Foreigner, based on Stephen Leather’s novel, is both a grim revenge thriller about a traumatized soldier who puts his skills to use one last time and a frantic political thriller about a soldier-turned-politician who tries to put water on an ever-growing fire. Either film would be enough, but The Foreigner gives us two for the price of one. And there is much entertainment to be found in how each story consistently interferes with the other.
StoryJackie Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan, a London immigrant whose adult daughter is killed in an IRA terrorist bombing. The man has already suffered unthinkable atrocities, and he has also amassed a special set of skills. When he can’t get immediate answers as to who killed the only family he had left, he zeroes in on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member turned British government official who either knows may know more than he lets on. As Hennessy tries to put out an escalating political fire that could undo two years of brokered peace, Quan embarks on a campaign of intimidation and potentially violent retribution to take his revenge.ReviewMartin Campbell is the director who (artistically) resurrected James Bond twice by redefining the character while making two of the best 007 films of all time. While The Foreigner isn’t quite on the level of Casino Royale or GoldenEye (or The Mask of Zorro), it again offers us a new variation on an iconic screen persona. Chan doesn’t need any box office boost in China (he’s been in a hot streak for the last few years), but this is the kind buttoned-down, dramatic role that he’d clearly like to do as his kicking and jumping days wind down. The emphasis is on skullduggery and acting over stunt work (there are no outtakes over the end credits).<b/>
If Chan plays against type, then Brosnan delivers what he’s been giving us for the last 15 years (Tailor of Panama, November Man, No Escape, etc.), namely a grizzled, cynical, somewhat real-world version of a would-be government agent possibly gone to rot. Brosnan has essentially been playing a real-world 007 ever since he left the actual James Bond franchise. But it’s a strong an engaging performance, as the picture empathizes with his attempts to prevent further bloodshed. He has a great speech where he begs everyone to maintain the peace, and the film treats Chan as a genuine fly in the ointment. The action hero isn’t quite a full-on villain, but nor does it present him as entirely righteous.
Chan is indeed terrific as a grief-stricken avenger, as his agony is more “Arnold Schwarzenegger in Collateral Damage” than “Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days.” The Foreigner owes more than a bit to Campbell’s two versions (the BBC miniseries and the 2010 Mel Gibson feature remake) of Edge of Darkness. Like that story, Chan has nothing to lose since there is no one left to love him (or bury him when the time comes), and that gives the proceedings a certain dread. Whether he does or does not go all Law Abiding Citizen, but it’s still an exciting change of pace and easily his best English-language performance (by default?) aside from The Karate Kid.
Because this is an adult drama that isn’t remotely non-stop action, there is plenty of time for thoughtful character work and interesting supporting characters. Both Brosnan’s wife (Orla Brady) and his would-be mistress (Charlie Murphy) play integral roles in the story, as the film manages to create equal sympathy and interest for both main characters. If anything, Brosnan is the protagonist while Chan is the antagonist, constantly creating chaos and drama as Brosnan is theoretically trying to bring the bombers to justice. Yes, you’re rooting for Quan to get the answers he needs and exact his revenge, but the picture is honest about the complications caused by his single-minded pursuits.
The Bottom LineThe Foreigner successfully combines both a political drama and a grim revenge thriller with relative aplomb. The violence and action scenes, when they are required, are realistic, brutal and efficiently staged for maximum clarity. The film uses the 19-year gap since the last IRA terrorist attack for dramatic urgency and poignancy, and frankly it was almost refreshing to be able to enjoy a terrorism thriller without feeling guilty (since the bad guys aren’t scary brown people). Existing source material notwithstanding, the film’s casting of Jackie Chan as an Asian immigrant hunting white European terrorists provides a nice counterpoint to 16 years of often lazy post-9/11 melodrama. That’s just one way The Foreigner stands out in familiar territory.