Review: Graying yet dynamic, Jackie Chan can't rescue ho-hum thriller 'The Foreigner'

Jackie Chan can’t fight his way out of this mediocre thriller.

Jackie Chan can’t fight his way out of this mediocre thriller. Christopher Raphael

Though it’s based on a 25-year-old novel from British thriller writer Stephen Leather, The Foreigner fits comfortably into the mold more recently established by the Liam Neeson Taken series.

It’s essentially the same plot—a father mercilessly tracks down those who’ve wronged his child—except here martial-arts movie legend Jackie Chan plays a dad whose daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing rather than kidnapped. Maybe the titled Blowed-Up was already, um, taken.

Before the attack, Chan’s Quan Minh was a soft-spoken Chinese restaurant owner living in London with his only daughter. He’s a widower whose other two children were killed by Thai pirates during his treacherous immigration to Great Britain (shown onscreen in an ill-advised flashback).

Now with no kin and nothing left to live for, Quan dedicates the remainder of his life to finding the bombers. He harangues British government officials for information, and when the explosion is linked to a newly emergent Irish Republican Army splinter cell, he travels north to Shamrock country seeking vengeance.

Quan’s target is Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former IRA fighter turned deputy minister for the government. Liam is under pressure from the Brits to uncover the men behind the attack, and from his old confederates to leverage the explosion into pardons for Irish political prisoners. Into this combustible mix comes the singleminded Quan. He only wants the names of the men who killed his daughter.

Of course Quan has his own very particular set of skills. He’s a former special forces soldier with training in bomb-making, booby traps, and gunplay, to say nothing of his lightning-fast fists. But Quan is more an agent of chaos in the story than the driver of the narrative. Most of the screen time is dedicated to the web of intrigue created by Liam’s conflicting allegiances to his old criminal cohorts and new government employers.

That might be more compelling if The Foreigner were truly interested in plumbing the moral murk for uneasy answers. Instead, all of it—Liam’s past and his family conflicts, Quan’s refugee backstory—is elaborate window dressing for a movie that draws sharp lines between good guys and bad guys and lets them fight it out.

Director Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale) stages crisp, competent action scenes that stimulate but don’t innovate. Chan’s hyper-adroitness is still a thrill to behold. The Foreigner is invigorated every time he’s let loose, but then quickly retreats back to its status quo of dour, John le Carré-lite political intrigue.

It’s a shame, because Chan’s graying hair and lined face lend him extra gravitas that belies the still-explosive abilities he showcased in zanier classics like Drunken Master and Rumble in the Bronx. His superhuman kineticism and Quan’s timely, tragic refugee story could have made for a potent and pointed action film—as opposed to merely being the best parts of a slightly better-than-average political thriller.

The Foreigner
Director: Martin Campbell
Starring: Katie Leung, Jackie Chan, Rufus Jones, Pierce Brosnan
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now open