I went into The Foreigner expecting it to be a painfully bad Jackie Chan’s Taken. Instead it’s quite good, the perfect action thriller that you’d stumble across on TNT on a rainy Saturday afternoon while flipping channels and find yourself sucked into it for the next two hours. I mean, TNT does know drama.
The set up is simple: an IRA bomb blows up in London and kills a dozen people, one of whom is the teenage daughter of Jackie Chan’s character Quan. Normally, this is the point in the review where I would snark about not bothering to look up the character’s name because Jackie Chan for all his joyous personality and impossible physicality only ever plays one character, all variations on Jackie Chan. Much like Statham always stars as Statham, Jackie Chan is always Jackie Chan.
Not so here. Chan drops some acting on the screen. Quan is quiet and gentle, his few words of dialogue before the tragedy pure dad humor. And afterwards, he brings a devastated gravitas to every scene, not playing for a moment into some Liam Neeson growling revenge fantasy. He is Jackie Chan, of course, and brings the martial arts to bear, but he conveys every action with a heavy world weariness. He speaks softly, he asks the same questions over and over with a dull monotony born of seeing horror over and over again. There’s no melodrama to it, no action movie grittiness. And while he has a very specific set of skills, it’s not a character of tag lines and dramatic entries. Just the sad exhaustion of a man who has lost everything going through the only motions he knows.
The acting is fantastic all around. When Pierce Brosnan showed up in the first few minutes when I still assumed I was in for a lousy rip off of Taken, I thought to myself, why in the world is Brosnan in this? It became clear pretty quickly: because he read the goddamned script. Brosnan gets to play the weaselly backstabbing nominal head of the IRA, Liam Hennessey. The Gerry Adams sort who has as much blood on his hands as the worst of them but parlayed that into a seat playing both sides at the table in peace time. He’s conniving, weak, and duplicitous without ever becoming a cartoon.
But while the movie is centered on Quan in its narrative, its world isn’t centered on him, doesn’t revolve around him. This is a taut thriller — and aren’t all good thrillers taut? Economies are robust, cultures are vibrant, and thrillers are taut. In two hours of run time, this movie packs in a host of characters: the black chief of security running the investigation, the female MP running the political side of things, a half dozen distinct IRA bosses and soldiers, the reporter working the story, the bombing team themselves, Hennessey’s wife, Hennessey’s mistress, Hennessey’s former special forces nephew. This film should feel bloated and rushed and instead it feels perfect and populated. Every one of those characters fully realized with a few brush strokes so that they feel in moments like real living and breathing people, who are serving as protagonists in their own stories rather than plot points in another’s. There are schemes within schemes, in a tale so messy it feels exactly like the real world, with no neat answers, and no clean resolutions.
It also never makes the mistake of cartoonish escalation. It’s a story that feels very grounded in the real world. Where a dozen dead in a bombing is nationally mobilizing, where another bombing threatens to drag down decades of peace. This isn’t a world that goes the action movie route of CGI demolitions of entire city blocks. It knows how to make the story matter more by keeping it tight and focused.
The Foreigner feels like a throw back to the sort of thrillers we got in the seventies and eighties. It feels like early Clancy or Ludlum or maybe Le Carre, put up on the screen. And that makes sense, it’s based on a 1992 novel called The Chinaman by Stephen Leather. I’d love to hear the story of how the hell this becomes a decent film in 2017. I remember reading a few Stephen Leather novels twenty years back. They’re … not good … as I recall. Second tier dark and gritty Ludlum rip offs for the most part. And I see on Wikipedia he’s written dozens of novels since then. So why? Why does a random novel from a quarter century ago by this guy get optioned for a movie, and then somehow end up being a decent movie to top it all off?
Only Brosnan’s atrocious Irish accent knows for sure.
Note: Yes, I know Brosnan is from Ireland. That was the joke that apparently isn’t landing. But for some reason his accent in this movie is so over the top in comparison to every other Irish accent on the screen that it sounds like a caricature of what a dumb American like myself is supposed to think an Irish accent sounds like.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.