There are two sorts of plot at work in The Foreigner, a new thriller from Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Green Lantern). One is labyrinthine, a tale of subterranean political intrigue and terrorism with a new twist in every scene. The other is straight as a bullet from a gun, a single-minded tale of revenge driven by one man’s passion to punish those who have harmed him. We’re used to seeing one or the other, but seldom both at once and that meeting of sub-genres helps keep the film unpredictable. Even if neither half would be wholly successful on its own, the chocolate-meets-peanut butter combination sets it apart. It’s a meeting of two worlds in other respects as well, pitting Jackie Chan, an action star in a class by himself, against Pierce Brosnan, the star of four James Bond films (including the Campbell-directed Goldeneye).
Here, both play characters at a remove from the roles that made them famous. Brosnan made a fine Bond, but he was sometimes let down by the movies around him. Nonetheless, playing Bond seems to have unlocked something in the actor, whose best work since Goldeneye has played against the suave, elegant 007 image, be it the slovenly assassin of The Matador or the thinly veiled, and less-than-heroic, Tony Blair stand-in of The Ghost Writer. The Foreigner’s Liam Hennessy is in that same tradition. A slick politician representing Northern Ireland who’s still connected to his roots in the IRA, he’s a man who looks put-together on the outside but struggles to keep up appearances. Always on the verge of some kind of meltdown, he’s earned respect and wealth while living a lie, and it’s made him act like a hunted man.
Appropriately, it’s not too deep into The Foreigner that he becomes a target. In the film’s opening scene, Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan), the seemingly unremarkable owner of a London Chinese restaurant, watches in horror as his teenage daughter dies in a bombing attack later claimed by a group called “The Authentic IRA.” This sets him on the path a revenge, a path made clearer, we later learn, by the training he received as a special services operative during the Vietnam War.
With gray hair and an unsmiling expression, this isn’t a side of Chan we’ve seen that often in the West. Asian audiences are a bit more familiar with his dramatic work thanks to films like Crime Story, but Chan’s Hollywood films, and the imports that made it to the States in the ‘90s, have mostly spotlighted Chan’s brilliant ability to combine martial arts and seemingly inhuman feats of stuntwork with slapstick comedy. Unsmiling beneath a head of graying hair, he slips into the grimness admirably. The Foreigner deploys Chan’s physical skills selectively but well. Now in his sixties, Chan doesn’t climb many walls in this movie, but he does still fall out of a building in one of the film’s stand-out scenes, a fight in a cozy bed and breakfast that pits him against some goons out to silence him. In his earlier films, a Chan action scene could run for the length of a reel. Here they’re short, brutal, and highly effective.
The movie’s pretty brutal as well, if a little puzzlingly out of time. It’s adapted from The Chinaman, a 1992 novel Stephen Leather, and it has to work overtime to explain why it takes place in the present, its plot put in motion by a new breed of young, restless IRA members who have no memory of life before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and want to stir up The Troubles again. The film mentions ISIS in passing but otherwise seems to take place in a parallel universe in which this conflict remains the biggest threat to British security.
Still, the shift allows Brosnan and Chan to play appropriately aged men with little in common beyond pasts that refuse to let them go. The film’s too dark to be called fun — one character, seemingly spared from death, is tortured then killed in short order, and the scenes of terrorism are unsparingly brutal — but Campbell directs with a gritty propulsiveness that serves both halves of his story well. Trouble is, it’s easier to admire the craft involved, both in the direction and the performances, than to care all that much about what happens next. The IRA plot takes some intriguing turns and Quan’s resourcefulness is treated with wonder. (In one scene, a seemingly innocent bag of groceries becomes a dangerous weapon.) Yet while Brosnan and Chan both create intriguing characters neither get much room to explore them in a film that feels, above all, engineered, a well-made thriller with no aspirations beyond being a well-made thriller. Which is fine. It’s not like there are too many of those already. But given the leads — it’s James Bond meeting Supercop, after all — it’s hard not to wish for a little more.