Everyone and everything feels a bit washed up, specifically on the shores of the 90s, in the new modern-set angry-old-man action flick The Foreigner. There are terrorist bombings, but they’re credited to the IRA, not ISIS. There’s Jackie Chan doing fancy stunts, but now he’s old and needs the help of CGI and a storyline that provides long breaks between set pieces to do his thing. There’s Pierce Brosnan playing a villain like he once did pre-Bond in Mrs. Doubtfire. And there’s a reunion of Brosnan and director Martin Campbell, who helmed the Irish star’s respectable 007 debut Goldeneye. The 90s callbacks are numerous, which lends The Foreigner a dose of nostalgia that’s equal parts pleasantly entertaining and plainly pitiful.
No one is on their A-game here, which serves to routinely remind us how much these talented guys have now understandably lost, but the B game (or even the C game) of a superstar like Chan is still worth a look. Additionally, Brosnan, like Bonds before him, still oozes that iconic ice cool swagger and Campbell remains a competent conductor of action-thriller set pieces. The Foreigner is a far cry from the career highlight years of all three aforementioned participants, but the pic plays out like such a creakily rusty rendition of the Rambo-esque story of one man taking on the system that it’s hard to not grant the movie a half-hearted pat on the back simply for trying.
When Chan is afforded an opportunity to creatively tumble off a rooftop or acrobatically evade villains in a stairwell, there’s certainly enough entertainment on the screen to justify the effort. And it’s worth appreciating that Brosnan’s nefarious politician, a minister for the British government with old ties to the IRA, is something of a middle man as far as bad guys go. He receives the brunt of the blame from Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh for an IRA-credited explosion that killed his dress-shopping daughter, but when Brosnan’s Liam Hennessey claims ignorance of the situation, he isn’t entirely lying.
If nothing else, this slight adjustment of villainy ensures that Brosnan doesn’t spend the whole movie twisting an invisible moustache or laughing maniacally. He’s a man who has been playing both sides, trying to appease aging IRA members whose blood still boils at the thought of the British while also working within the British government to prevent any more unnecessary bloodshed.
Since Chan can’t fill the screen with martial arts-heavy action like he used to, the movie slips almost organically into a situation where the antagonist gets a lot of screentime and a hefty share of the plot. Brosnan makes the most of it, seething with rage, yet always trying to keep a cap on his frustration as he witnesses his well-laid plans be first poorly executed and later completely unraveled.
Campbell makes it clear from the character’s infidelity-infused introduction that we’re supposed to dislike and distrust the guy, but that doesn’t mean Brosnan’s efforts to poison his iconic 007 charm with a dash of slick sliminess aren’t enjoyable to watch. The lack of subtlety doesn’t really hurt a B-thriller like this one.
Brosnan and his bone-headed cronies make fine foes for Chan to efficiently dispose of, but just as they find that the hero poses a considerable challenge, the movie itself struggles mightily with how to handle Chan’s protagonist. He’s the titular character and everything in the plot initially appears to be driven by his thirst for revenge in the wake of his daughter’s tragic death, but after a while, he begins to border on being an inconsequential third party in the conflict.
The police investigation ramps up as the villains, most of them unmasked early for the viewers, try to avoid capture. While Quan beats up a bunch of henchmen and is a thorn in the side for Hennessey throughout, his participation in the plot is ultimately somewhat pointless. His arc gets neatly tied up at the end, of course, but removing him from the story altogether would likely have little effect on the outcome. As the movie progresses, Chan becomes less involved, showing up at scheduled intervals to further his revenge plot and provide a burst of charisma or a flurry of action.
The eventual sense of disconnect between the police investigation of the IRA bombing and Quan’s personal vendetta causes the movie to feel sloppily spliced in half, leading to a climax plagued by momentum-killing redundancy. It’s all so clear that the movie wants to operate first and foremost as a Jackie Chan vehicle, but needs to fill many of the spaces usually reserved for action with a bunch of plot twists and turns to ease the burden on an aging Chan.
In many ways, the result is too messy to work, but it’s also an understandable concession that inevitably comes with trotting out action stars who are in their 60s. In the case of The Foreigner, this is kind of the movie’s whole point and purpose, to geriatrically relive the glory days of its stars and director while even further exploring the cinematic potency of its subject matter. The problem persists and leaves the action flick in something of a pathetic state, but there remains a sense of appreciation that the effort was made in spite of the inherent challenges. It’s a movie that exists only for its makers’ fans, aware that its shelf life is short and yet stubbornly, if not stupidly, making a go of it anyway.