By: Kevin Jordan
Jackie Chan for the win.
Of all the actors you’ve seen in a film or television, can you name one that appears to love their job more than Chan? You know when you hear he’s in a new movie, you are in. You don’t even need to know the title; just when the film opens in a theater near you. Thus, I present to you The Foreigner, a movie in which a 94-year old Chan fights the IRA.
Okay, so Chan is actually just 63, but the make-up people for The Foreigner made him look old enough to have witnessed the birth of flight. Don’t worry – he still gets to kick some ass. Also, IRA means what you think it means – Irish Republican Army. This film is based on a book published in 1992 called The Chinaman by Stephen Leather. If you know anything about the IRA besides bombings it is that the official peace between the IRA and the United Kingdom happened in 1998. Having been written prior to 1998, the plot of the novel is the Chinaman getting revenge for the death of his daughter from one of the bombings. The film takes place in 2017 and, this being 2017, a couple of things were changed about the story to make it current.
The first thing they changed was the title because the main character in the novel is Vietnamese. While the movie mostly features Brits and Irish, the productions companies behind the film are all Chinese. I know next to nothing about Chinese culture or politics, but I’m guessing they must not be very keen on a Vietnamese, revenge-bent, special forces soldier murdering people being referred to as a Chinaman. I’ll even go so far as to guess they frown upon Vietnamese people in general being referred to as Chinamen (and vice versa). So, Chan plays Ngoc Minh Quan, a Vietnamese, revenge-bent, special forces soldier murdering far fewer people. Not having read the novel, I can’t say how much they changed the character, but Quan is very restrained in the killing department.
(Note: they also made a minor change to the character’s name for the film, which I have no explanation for at all.)
The screenwriter also had to have added or modified Pierce Brosnan’s character, Liam Hennessey. Liam is the First Minister of Northern Ireland, but was a former bigwig in the IRA. I’m assuming the book has a very similar character because both book and film have the protagonist demanding the names of the bombers responsible for his daughter’s death. Anyway, Quan goes to the British police first to get names and meets with Commander Bromley (Ray Fearon), who assures Quan that his top priority is identifying and catching the bombers. Bromley is telling the truth, too, because we see him and his team chasing clues and homing in on IDs throughout the film. Of course, it wouldn’t be a very entertaining movie if Quan heeded Bromley’s advice to be patient, so, Quan redirects his focus to Liam, whom Quan believes knows who the bombers are.
As with Bromley, Liam assures Quan that he does not know who the bombers are, but is trying to find out. Unlike with Bromley, Quan believes Liam is lying and enacts plan B where B is for bomb. Recalling his special forces training, Quan resorts to terrorism to frighten Liam into giving up the names. This is where the movie is a bit weak. It’s a safe assumption that Quan thinks the only thing an ex-IRA member would understand is violence, but he never hints at that rationale. He just jumps straight to bomb, bomb, bomb it out, though doesn’t kill anyone and does everything possible to limit the injuries. This is weak writing because, while his motivation is solid, his jump to violence seemingly comes out of nowhere (we don’t find out about his training until much, much later in the film). While nobody is going to root against old man Chan taking on the IRA, it is hard to root for Quan at first, especially when everything we’ve been shown and told so far is that Liam and Bromley really are trying to find out who are the killers. At this point, I’m kind of with Bromley – Quan should just be patient.
Forgiving that is pretty easy though. While that part of the writing is weak, other parts are quite strong. The cat and mouse game between Liam and Quan is pretty entertaining, especially as Quan ramps up the terror. In addition, we know almost immediately that someone within the IRA ranks is trying to restart the bloodshed. What’s fun is that Brosnan does an excellent job of showing exasperation at being harassed by Quan because he really doesn’t know the identities of the bombers. Not to be outdone, Chan is remarkably sad and morose and comes off like your grandpa. Well, until he starts blowing things up, that is.
As entertaining as the movie is, I do have one more criticism. There is one too many investigator in this movie. At no point do Quan and Bromley’s investigations overlap with each other or help/hinder each other. Each of them solve the puzzle independently, so are redundant. Since we came this movie to see Jackie Chan kick someone, Bromley and team should have been reduced down to brushing off Quan multiple times, then disappearing from the film. It would have been as easy as Liam requesting a few days to ferret out the bombers to remove the cops from the film and let us focus more on Quan and his campaign of guerilla warfare.
Again, forgiving those minor writing issues are easy with this film. Watching Quan morph from a hobbled old man to an IRA member’s nightmare is borderline cathartic. I also liked the subtle commentary on how the decades of bombings and shootings only ever lead to death and not an independent and unified Ireland like the IRA wanted. It’s a clear allegory to the current state of affairs in the Middle East, though nobody in a position of power (on any side of the conflict) is going to see this movie and have a change of heart (unfortunately for all of the innocent people who are caught up in the bullshit). If allegories aren’t your thing, just enjoy the 63-year old centenarian terrorizing a bunch of assholes. That’s always worth the price of admission.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and hope Chan never stops loving his job.