“The Foreigner” (2017): A Vince Flynn Novel in Motion (Review)
The Foreigner is a thriller made effective by the simplest conceit. Most of the film is spent in the perspective of the villains who are themselves trying to navigate a difficult web of politics and criminality. Then an old, hunched-over grief-stricken Asian fellow acts the part of a monkey wrench and their plans crumble like Jenga bricks.
For a serious film, the story beats are almost satirical in their emulations. In the two-hour runtime, I saw Law Abiding Citizen, MacGyver, First Blood, John Wick, Edge of Darkness, and The Bourne Identity all meshed into a simple narrative that’s constantly juggling but never feels overworked. It’s a good film, certain to get better with age just as Law Abiding Citizen and Edge of Darkness (a similar and similarly misunderstood film made by director Martin Campbell) was, and one of the reasons for that is that it is not an especially timely story.
We are introduced to Quan (Jackie Chan) whose daughter is killed in a dress shop in London from a terrorist bombing. He gives up his restaurant to his only friend and leaves her to pursue the men responsible. The group claiming credit for the bombing labels itself “the Authentic IRA” and has a connection to the office of the Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). Hennessy, who is former IRA himself, is suspiciously perturbed by the attack and, given the pressure upon him by the British Prime Minister, must sort out his family affairs and security problems before he’s crucified on all sides – made all the more complicated by Quan’s persistence.
There’s a lot I should probably be criticizing – the convoluted politics, the family melodrama, the one-too-many action-movie clichés, and the character teleportation.
The Foreigner will certainly be too grim for some, and there’s little in the current geopolitical climate to compare it to. But Campbell keeps it moving with purpose, and the credibility of Chan and Brosnan holds it all together. Unlike, say, Taken, where Liam Neeson was debuting his first true authentic action movie, Chan’s physical acting deliberately shows his old age. Yet his resume is key to the film all the same. Brosnan, meanwhile, whose acting talent surpasses even the best movies and TV shows featuring him, brings a fun theatricality to his character and is enjoyable in the star-antagonist role. He probably has more screen time than Chan.
If you don’t know about the IRA, I can’t say that The Foreigner will teach you everything you need to know, but it’s a fun little experience edited down to the length of a lean novel. A Vince Flynn novel – truer to the spirit of the late great author than the otherwise fine but unremarkable actual adaptation American Assassin could manage. Assassin did a bit too much, too much else with the material but it worked due to a funny inside joke among readers and pure grit from Michael Keaton. And although Flynn never wrote an IRA counterterrorism novel, The Foreigner has more of his narration style baked into it, where the villains are fanatical but rational actors and their dramatic schemes are tracked as much as, if not more than, the good guys, and where characters make power moves on one another that the story proceeds to neatly validate by their abilities.
It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but Jackie Chan in noir form pulls it off. CBS Films should really look into getting Campbell for the next Mitch Rapp novel.