One wishes that the Jackie Chan filmmakers had taken some tips from the Larry Shue play of the same name. Fans of Jackie Chan might be disappointed that this new flick doesn’t use the humor that Chan is known for. “The Foreigner” is still an action thriller, but lacks the trademark Chan charm, but still provides believable kicks in its serious drive toward revenge.
Of course, in the Shue play, the foreigner wasn’t really a foreigner, but someone pretending to be one and because people believe he is, they speak more freely and reveal secrets since the foreigner supposedly can’t understand English. In the Jackie Chan movie, Chan may be the titular character, but the main focus is on his chosen adversary: Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former leader of the IRA and current Irish deputy minister.
The movie is based on the 1992 Stephen Leather novel, “The Chinaman.” When Leather was writing the novel, the Provisional Irish Army was still bombing and the violence in Northern Ireland was referred to as Northern Ireland Troubles or just The Troubles. In the novel, the titular character is actually Vietnamese Nguyen Ngoc Minh who fought for the Viet Cong and then for the US. Minh somehow manages to escape to Hong Kong after witnessing the rape and murder of his two daughters by Thai pirates. Now a widower with only one daughter left, Minh is the owner of a South London Chinese restaurant. This all according to Leather’s own website.
In the movie, Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan. We meet him as he picks up his daughter from a private school before dashing off to buy a special dress for an upcoming dance. Due to parking problems, he stays in the car while she goes into the shop. Quan gets into a minor fender-bender while trying to back into a recently vacated parking space and before he can confront the other driver, there’s an explosion. The so-called “Authentic Irish Republican Army” claims responsibility, but they weren’t hitting a dress store by the neighboring bank.
Hennessy has his romantic interlude with his much younger mistress, Maggie (Charlie Murphy), interrupted when a phone call informs him of the bombing. As a former IRA leader and current liaison between the Irish and British via communications from British politician Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), he convenes leaders of other factions–including his right-hand man Jim Kavanagh (Michael McElhatton), determined to find out what rogue element of the IRA is behind the bombing. Not convinced that his board of IRA head honchos can sniff out the rotten elements, he also calls in his handsome, studly nephew Sean Morrison (Rory Fleck-Byrne), back from the US to covertly work for him.
With the death of his last remaining family member Quan is heartbroken. Born in Guanxi (Canton), Quan was a special ops in Vietnam, working for the US military. We learn through a news articles and other crafty means of exposition that he already lost his wife and daughters to Thai pirates before making London where he became the owner of a hole-in-the-wall Chinese take-out restaurant and lives upstairs. Convinced that someone knows the names of the culprits, Quan first attempts to bribe officers at Scotland Yard and then latches on to Hennessy.
This is where the inscrutable Oriental cliché comes in. I understand how Quan find Hennessy at his office, but how does he find Hennessy at his farm and then later find the actual bombers? In the play “The Foreigner,” it is clear how the protagonist gets his intel, but hat’s not clearly explained in this movie nor how and why any English newspaper would be so interested in Quan to write an article about the rape-murder of his daughters when there were loads of other desperate refugees dying similarly.
The logical explanation for how a Mandarin-speaking man fought for the US in Vietnam isn’t really part of this movie’s concerns. The script by David Marconi focuses more on Hennessy who is not only being unfaithful to his wife, but his wife is unfaithful to him. Some had already criticized Hennessy for getting cozy with the British and that will come back to haunt him, but if a man’s wife can’t trust him, just who can? Ponder that while watching Chan playing an old man who can still pack a punch, sometimes not with his hands either.
The action scenes are believable, but not the one-man revenge army’s intel. The political logic of the Asian connections are hazy and there’s little humor to relieve the grimness of the journey toward vengeance. One wishes the script gave Chan more to do, but Chan is still believable as an action hero, even an elderly one.