The Foreigner

It occurs to me after watching The Foreigner that Jackie Chan’s central appeal reveals a flaw in his identity as a character in a movie, like beautiful graffiti that accidentally highlights fatal cracks in the wall. His insistence on doing his own incredible stunts – the dusty, rib-cracking Chan oeuvre – has made him a celebrity of self, a pantomime of an actor. None of his characters read as anything beyond just a situation comedy of Jackie Chan. This is something he shares with great silent comics. But did Buster Keaton ever play a misanthropic ex-special forces retiree with a grudge against the IRA in a two-hour episode of 24? Did he ever play as anything that seemed so little like himself?

If he did, it was to scrape together alimonies after studio contracts obliged him to forget he was ever an artist and a few failed marriages obliged him to forget he was ever happy. With The Foreigner, Chan, without such an excuse, seems to appeal more to his insecure idea of his career than of an exciting new film. With this comes the quiet recognition that Jackie Chan has always been “lesser than” the endurable kook appeal of his chop-socky symphonies, that Supercop and Drunken Master were just his stepping stones to … what? The Foreigner? Why does he now, after so much alleged enjoyment jolting Saturday morning childhood to life, abdicate from himself now that those children are old enough to take themselves to the movies? I would congratulate him even sarcastically on ushering in a dour new era of his career if I could come up with any way in which it did not sound like an obituary to someone who had a majority share of the time on my VCR many, many Saturday mornings ago.

My only hope is that this is Chan busting out of his type and trying something new for phase two of his movies (a sort of celebrity mid-life crisis), and not his death anthem the likes of Gran Torino or The Shootist or Logan. If this is his last major film, The Foreigner is as weak a comeback as I could imagine, a lesser sendoff than if he had died in the recording booth of Kung-Fu Panda.

From the trailer, which indelicately traces the film in its entirety, you might suspect that The Foreigner is a gritty Kung-fu film starring an aged Chan with darkened eyes and hardened fists, along the lines of Choi Min-sik in Oldboy or even Donnie Yen in Kung-fu Killer. But what the film actually contains is Chan scowling in half the scenes of a script that somehow makes his role seem like a cameo. Pierce Brosnan as an angry Irish diplomat hogs the center of attention. The camera catches his impudent snarl more often than it catches Chan at all.

Chan is Quan, the lonely owner of a noodle joint who loses his daughter (Katie Leung) to an IRA bombing in London. Finding no recourse with the law, he spends the film terrorizing Hennessy (Brosnan), bombing his office and scaring his family to force him to reveal who was responsible for the attack.

The weird thing is that Hennessy doesn’t actually know. The police force aren’t racist as in In the Heat of the Night or socially prejudiced as they were with Rambo in First Blood. Quan is the one doing all the antagonizing, literally bombing official places of work during an ongoing investigation because they did not meet his unrealistic ultimatums. Quan is not in the right for the majority of the film, and I wonder how this is possible. How is Quan not the character we’re supposed to support with a heavy heart and a weary fist? Imagine that climactic fight in the building superstructure in The Dark Knight, if Batman was the one who had it wrong who the hostages were and the cops had to stop him. The audience has no allegiance in The Foreigner because all we want to do is fight with Quan, but Quan has no case. Quan was born in the West, so I don’t even know what the title has to do with anything. Perhaps it refers to the audience?

A couple of times, Chan opens his aging fists and does a tiny smack of parkour, but this is far from that kind of movie. This is a film obsessed with talky cop show Americana and brings not even a souvenir from its home in Hong Kong. Last year, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall suffered from ethnic dissociation, being a film with the material for an Eastern epic shackled to the formula structure and the stars of the West. The Foreigner has an equal and opposite problem, starring Chan in a film that eschews his appeal with an Irish police procedural. One brilliant thing about Gran Torino was the fact that despite displacing Clint Eastwood from his genre, the film still appealed to his past. It felt not just as though it was Eastwood’s last film, but Dirty Harry’s as well. The Foreigner is a film without a country: anyone who would want to see it for Jackie Chan would be in the wrong theater, and anyone who doesn’t care about him will not be impressed by a film like any you could catch at any time of night at your hotel on Showtime.

Martin Campbell, who mined James Bond for the repressed roar of all his debonair instincts in Casino Royale, seems to have no mission briefing on Quan. The Foreigner is so disinterested in its lead that it seems to be made by a computer, which would not be able to tell who is more interesting except by how handsome they are. When the film is assembled, Quan is really just a plot device, a tool for the ones and zeroes that put The Foreigner together. Hennessy, despite being accidentally villainous, is at least a foreground figure with ambitions, loved ones, and flaws. None of these are interesting, but he has them.

The Foreigner is a film way too devoted to representing the premise of its development, which was to make a perfunctory comeback for a star, in a film purposely like nothing for which he is famous. Even in the chaos of the most meticulous choreography, Chan has always worn a face of exaggerated desperation as surely as Keaton wore one of calm. Chan’s appeal is that of an everyman serendipitously thrown into parkour: even when he is supposedly a martial arts master, he has none of the old wisdom or eternal nonchalance. I have never once seen him stroke a numinous beard, or wait for a new protagonist on some mythic hilltop with lessons to teach (which actually sounds like a film I’d watch, and if it would make anyone happy it could still be called “The Foreigner”). Of course, in real life Chan is a calculating stuntman with a penchant for professional self-harm, only playing the part of someone who is out of his depth. The greatest sin of The Foreigner is that Chan imprisons himself in a stone-face.

Sometimes a professional no longer wants to be recognized. Shia Lebeouf famously appeared at a red-carpet gala with a paper bag over his head upon which was scrawled, “I am not famous anymore.” It breaks my heart to see Chan do the same, in movie form.

Cast & Crew

Martin Campbell

David Marconi (screenplay)

Stephen Leather (book)

Ngoc Minh Quan Jackie Chan
Liam Hennessy Pierce Brosnan
Jim Kavanagh Michael McElhatton
Keyi Lam Liu Tao
Maggie/Sara McKay Charlotte "Charlie" Murphy
Mary Hennessy Orla Brady
Fan Katie Leung

Official Trailer

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