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There is Jackie Chan the man and then there is Jackie Chan the international action star. The two aren’t particularly exclusive. There is usually something very cheerful and light about man from China with a twinkle in his eye. Even in the more “dramatic” (the term is relative and relegated to maybe one or two moments) roles he finds himself in, there are many moments of levity and cartoonish violence.
With The Foreigner, while there are small moments that might count as humorous, they are incidental and not necessarily staged in the way you might see in another film. The Jackie Chan we’ve grown to know and love, the man and the action star, is not in this movie. A fact that is obvious pretty early on, from his reserved demeanor to the uncharacteristically slower and world-weary manner he moves his body when not fighting. “The fastest hands in the East” belong to Quan, a single father who runs a Chinese restaurant in London. When his daughter (Katie Leung from the Harry Potter films), is killed in an explosion set off by mysterious terrorists, Quan is grief-stricken and finds himself spiraling into a deep depression. But there comes a point where Quan stops being sad, lamenting over the loss of his family and becomes more proactive in his search for answers as to who was responsible for his daughter’s death.
On the other side of the spectrum you have an Irish government official and former IRA member, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), who is also trying to figure out the forces behind the explosion that killed Quan’s daughter, but for very different reasons. While in the eyes of the public, Hennessy is a reformed man with a particularly dark history, having paid his debt to society, he is involved in some shady dealings that put him in direct opposition of Quan and the result is an entertaining game of chess between the two men.
In the steady and capable hands of Martin Campbell, The Foreigner is another strong product. After all, this is the man who ushered in two successive generations of James Bond (and gave fans a couple of the stronger Bond film’s in Goldeneye and Casino Royale), among other strong actioners like The Mask of Zorro and Edge of Darkness. Campbell’s pacing is just right, he manages to keep the proceedings grounded in a reality that is refreshing particularly in a film with Jackie Chan. Campbell makes sure that the action, a key selling point of this film, felt like it might if someone of Jackie Chan’s age were to find themselves in a brawl. Quan doesn’t quickly dispatch numerous men as we might see in another movie. Here, Quan gets hurt, shot, cut and we feel every bit of it with him. The fighting is rough, gritty and satisfyingly reflected. There are also surprisingly not very many kills in this film, but when there are, they aren’t easy.
Chan delivers a strong performance as Quan. Though it is probably his most gloomy and sad performance, that works to his advantage here in terms of seeing him challenging himself as an actor and performer. What we see is very different from the persona that Chan presents in other films. Brosnan is also quite strong here, as evidenced by the fact that he probably has the most scenery to chew up in this film, not to mention some of the strongest speeches in the whole movie. Where Chan is more restrained, Brosnan really gets to let loose a bit, which is fun to see the former James Bond continues to spread out to new places. The only tic mark on Brosnan’s performance was his Irish accent. It seemed exaggerated and forced at points, which nearly worked against him and might have ruined his performance were he a different actor. Perhaps he has been living away from Ireland for too long. Brosnan, a natural born Irishman, might have done better to speak in his normal voice, with his natural accent.
The dynamic between the two men, both from two sides of very dark histories is the glue that holds the tension of this picture together. Hennessy has seemingly moved away from the active perpetuation of ruthless acts from his past and stepped into a position of political power, while still informed by that past and keeping a hand on the pulse of activity that keeps him connected. At the other end stands Quan, who was trying to live a normal quiet life after having suffered the most unimaginable loss. He is haunted by that loss, but when more loss comes to him he is determined to seek justice.
This is a tightly woven, well plotted, well-acted film. If you want to see Jackie Chan in something different, you might check out this movie. It carries more weight than some other films of its ilk and some unexpected and satisfying wrap-ups to some of the narrative threads.