There’s a lot of redemptive tales at play in “The Foreigner“. On the one hand, we have Jackie Chan‘s comeback to Hollywood films. We also have Pierce Brosnan reuniting with his “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell. Yet, the final product here is fairly limp, more at home on cable than in cinemas. This is another sort of movie that your dad will enjoy, especially if he stumbles upon it on TNT or USA late one night. It represents a missed opportunity to really utilize two very different actors and an underrated filmmaker. Brosnan and Chan do their part, though it’s ultimately in vain.
“The Foreigner” doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Promotional material highlights Chan back in the action game, so you’d think this would be a kick-ass comeback for the legend. That’s false advertising, or these days, fake news. The film is a talky affair closer to a low rent “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” than something full of fighting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but when the talent involved is better at the latter, the former is always going to come up short.
At the start, Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) is a humble restaurant owner, picking his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) at school. She wants a special dress for a dance and he’s giving her a ride. Tragically, the dress shop is next to a bank that’s bombed shortly after Fan goes in, killing her and many others. A new strand of the Irish Republican Army takes credit, despite the IRA being a complete afterthought when it comes to modern terrorism. Driven by inaction, Quan sets his sights on Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), a government bureaucrat with IRA ties in his past. Quan believes he knows who committed the bombings, something Hennessy denies.
As Hennessy dismisses Quan, the latter begins to show some very special skills to try and job his memory. It turns out, Quan is Chinese by birth, but raised in Vietnam and trained as a mercenary by the United States. Some warning shots escalate the rivalry, causing henchmen to be dispatched. A battle of wills ensues, as Quan pressures Hennessy and avoids capture, while Hennessy attempts to get to the bottom of it all. If you thought this was going to be closer to “Police Story,” think again. This is as much an IRA mystery as a Chan action flick.
Those of you expecting a Jackie Chan action fest are going to be disappointed. Likewise, if you think Pierce Brosnan is going to be doing anything in the realm of 007, check that expectation at the door. Chan gets to show a little gravitas and depth with this darker role, though he certainly shows his age. There are moments where his prowess is still on display, but without question, he’s limited with what he can still do. Brosnan interestingly gets to put on an Irish accent and play politics, which has an appeal. He chews the scenery at times, so this isn’t “The Ghost Writer,” but it’s not “Mama Mia” either. Their scenes together lack a spark though. It’s hardly a clash of two titans, partly due to the material never finding an interesting reason to pit them against each other.
Also in the cast are the likes of Orla Brady, Katherine Davies, Ray Fearon, Rufus Jones, Tao Liu, Nial McNamee, Charlie Murphy, and David Pearse. They’re all fairly anonymous, as this is completely about Brosnan and Chan. The aforementioned Katie Leung is only in one scene, so again, Brosnan and Chan dominate the screen. Even so, Chan oddly disappears for long stretches of time.
Martin Campbell is an odd choice for this material. He’s capable of both phenomenal work like “Casino Royale” and also head-scratchers like “Green Lantern“. Normally though, he’s a go-to hire for launching or re-launching properties. As a one-off book adaptation, it didn’t make sense to hire him, aside from reuniting with Brosnan. The effort shows a bad fit too, as nothing about his work stand out. When there’s action, it’s perfunctory. When there are long stretches of dialogue, it’s expository. The script by David Marconi is overly concerned with IRA politics, but Campbell does nothing to liven up the material. Cliff Martinez has a forgettable score here as well, adding to the anonymous nature of “The Foreigner”.
Overall, “The Foreigner” is doomed by a lack of an identity. Without fully committing to any one genre, it can never be a satisfying endeavor. The less you think about it, the more likely you are to enjoy its surface pleasures. Unfortunately, the film does want you to think, creating a disconnect. Fans of Brosnan and/or Chan might enjoy seeing them do something a little bit different. All others need not apply.