Before the L.A. premiere of “The Foreigner” began, the audience received a message from its star, Jackie Chan. “Aside from the fighting,” he said, “I hope you like my acting.” It was a curious request, especially from Chan, whose on-screen work has largely benefited from the fact that we’re watching Jackie Chan. You can’t help but watch Chan. This is the international superstar’s blessing and curse. Jackie is Jackie, no matter the character’s name.
In Martin Campbell’s film, an adaptation of Stephen Leather’s novel “The Chinaman,” Chan plays a soft-spoken man of humility whose life becomes undone when his daughter is killed in an act of terrorism. Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) survived the explosion. He wishes he hadn’t. Determined to track down the individuals responsible for this crime, Minh embarks on a European journey. It’s essentially “Taken,” except the daughter is already dead.
The plot thickens as Minh digs deeper into murder. Pierce Brosnan (as Liam Hennessy) emerges as a former IRA member turned British government official. The killers are potentially Irishmen, leading Minh to Hennessy. After some diplomatic exchanges, “The Foreigner” turns into a long game of cat-and-mouse between Hennessy and Minh. Minh seeks vengeance and justice. Hennessy seeks shelter and tranquility. Neither seem to be getting what they want.
By the hour mark, it becomes abundantly clear why this film was made: Jackie Chan wanted it to happen. Everyone else is fairly disposable. The script is written by David Marconi (“Live Free or Die Hard”), but not even he can seem to keep up with it. It’s part Bond movie, part familial drama. Subplots come and go with a haphazard ease. There’s a clandestine affair between a married woman and a younger man, there’s IRA in-fighting, a conniving British government, and young Irish terrorists. “The Foreigner” is not short of ideas; just execution.
It’s such a convoluted dish that it often forgets its main ingredients. At about the 65-minute mark, Chan’s character disappears. He is not mentioned. He is not seen. He’s not heard from. He performs a remarkable 25-minute vanishing act half-way through the movie. When he reappears, you nearly forget he’s the star. Brosnan does what he can to step in. Hennessy is an aging bureaucrat in an unhappy marriage. He’s Irish, so he drinks a lot. He’s Irish, so he swears a lot. He’s Irish, so he’s a cliché of every Irishmen depicted in contemporary cinema.
Marconi’s screenplay makes a noble attempt at an exercise in futility: juggling three movies in one. The film has the assistance of brilliant, ancillary talent. Shot by David Tattersall (“Death Note”), the British talent knows where to place the camera amid chaotic gunfights. Additionally, the whole piece is scored by Cliff Martinez (“The Neon Demon”). Even when the dialogue is stiff, Martinez ups the power and punch of a scene through his symphony of sound. It has the feeling of propulsion, even when the movie seems to be running in place.
But its central revenge plotline doesn’t work. If “The Foreigner” is adamant about telling the story of a widowed father, then so be it. Stick to it. Hone in on Chan’s ability to be entertaining and dynamic. Time after time, Campbell refuses to focus the film’s attention. When it loses sight, the movie pivots to complex combat sequences.
This, of course, is where Chan thrives. There’s still something thrilling about watching Chan, even at 63, fight people half his age. There’s a graceful fluidity to his punching and kicking. He’s poetry in motion. No film can take that away from him — not in 2017, not ever.
Even Chan seems to understand this fact. After asking the audience to appreciate his acting, he makes a joke. “And if not, well, there’s always ‘Rush Hour 4.'” Till then.