For the 40 minutes of Martin Campbell’s The Foreigner that resembles the movie that it’s being sold as — the one in which a sad and bruised Jackie Chan (playing a Vietnamese ex-Navy Seal who owns a Chinese restaurant somewhere in London) pulls a Charles Bronson/Liam Neeson/insert-your-favorite-action-star-here and goes after the terrorists who killed his daughter in a bomb blast — it’s a hoot and a half, grimly satisfying in the way many of those classic revenge thrillers are.
Chan’s great, as well: It’s often forgotten that he’s got some serious dramatic chops behind all the technical skill and stunt work, and he nails the tone perfectly here. Yet, being a late-period Jackie Chan movie, it’s potential is squandered in the worst possible ways. Were you expecting a small-scale thriller about the legacy of the Peace Accords and the potential return of the Troubles to the United Kingdom? Did the Big K.R.I.T. suggest that to you too?
You see, our actual protagonist is Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA member turned government official who’s hated by pretty much every single person he knows. His wife’s fucking his nephew, his old IRA pals are pissed at him for taking the fire out of their movement, the English hate him for seemingly still being a collaborator with those rogue elements. Basically, the dude loves three things: Whisky, his dog, and his mistress, Maggie (Charlie Murphy; no, not that one). When the bomb goes off that kills Chan’s daughter, planted by a group calling themselves the Actual IRA, Hennessy, in a furious fusion of motivations, orders that the men who did it be found by any means necessary, and goes to the media to discuss what he knows. That’s where Chan finds him, and he stalks the Irishman, looking for whatever way he can to pry the names of the men who killed his child, his only remaining family member, out of him. It’s less fun than it sounds. Lots of shots of Brosnan pouring himself a drink and yelling in his particular and odd Irish accent isn’t enough in order make it a thrilling little film.
The grimier elements of the film hover around the edges and suggest a much more intense exploitation throwback: The hard-nosed racism hurled at Chan by the Irish and the English, the hints at blood and utter horror caused by the bombers, the pulsing electronica that overtakes the ambiance from Cliff Martinez’s score. Yet it’s just too conservative to ever commit to it, wincing at the thought of depicting violence that isn’t simply a kick or a punch (it’s safe to say that Campbell’s lost a significant amount of his talent in the years since Casino Royale, as the sequences here are absolutely snooze-worthy), shrouded in a blue-tinted aesthetic that makes the entire film look like a shitty April day. By the time Campbell allows himself to fully descend into the campy bleakness at the heart of this revenge tale, it’s far too little much too late. There are some moments near the end that emphasize that dark delirium of the grindhouse: The implied torture and quick death of an IRA member, the incest plot that’s wrapped up gratuitously, and a scene of airport rent-a-cops trying to dispose of a bomb that feels ripped straight from Batman ‘66, but it’s always held back by Chan, whose gravitas would better suit something worthy of his director’s full and undivided attention.
If you have to see a morally repugnant and deeply entertaining thriller this weekend, go watch Brawl in Cell Block 99, which hits all of the On Demand platforms on the same day The Foreigner hits theaters. You don’t even have to leave the house and you’ll see something better, and why would you spend more money on this garbage, anyways?
The Foreigner hits area theaters October 13.
Image provided by STX Financing. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.