For about seven minutes – certainly no more than ten – The Foreigner has something going for it. There’s the promise of a seriously stirring turn from Jackie Chan and the reunion of Pierce Brosnan with his GoldenEye director Martin Campbell. Perhaps that’s why the misjudged so-called thriller which follows proves quite so insulting?
Based on the 1992 novel, by Stephen Leather, The Chinaman, Campbell’s film tells the story of former Vietnam special operations-trained Ngoc Minh Quan (Chan) who has been living in London as a British citizen since 1984. Quan might happily run a restaurant in the city but he’s got history and when his teenage daughter Fan (Katie Leung – wasted) is killed by a Knightsbridge bombing, it all comes flooding back.
No, the bomb is not the work of an Islamic terror attack, as has so horrifically struck Europe all too recently, but a plant by the – wait for it – ‘Authentic IRA’. That’s right, nineteen-years on from the Good Friday Agreement, in the midst of Brexit negotiations and international terror threats, The Foreigner is raking up the the Troubles. Worse still, the film rebirths the conflict in the form of a My Name is Khan meets Taken mash up, following Quan’s guerilla-revenge ploy to find out the names of his daughter’s killers from former-UDI leader turned Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Brosnan). He being a Northern Irish crook with a mistress (Charlie Murphy) and bitter wife (Orla Brady). The twist here couldn’t be more blatantly obvious were Hennessy to have it tattooed across his brow-beaten forehead.
Intermingled, and frequently suppressing the Quan Wick saga, is scene after scene of turgid political nonsense, revolving around British-Irish political negotiations and a half-arsed attempt at catching both the ‘Authentic IRA’ members responsible and ‘the Chinaman’ himself. Incidentally, as Leather has himself so astutely pointed out, the switching of the title to The Foreigner is not only bland but entirely ludicrous. If the change was a matter of taste, why then his Quan referred to in the film as ‘the chinaman’ and not ‘the foreigner’? To add to the mess, Quan has been a British resident for over three decades and so isn’t even remotely a foreigner for the duration of the film.
Not that it’s makes a shred of difference to UK audiences – here the film, like James Ponsoldt’s The Circle has been relegated to Netflix – but there is nothing cinematic about The Foreigner. Indeed, with it’s grating thrum of a soundtrack, this all feels very televisual, especially given how common it is now to find Hollywood casting on the small screen. Playing against type, Brosnan’s effective enough, whilst Chan is undeniably impressive in the opening, showcasing a rare aptitude for earthy and dramatic performance. Naturally, he can’t resist whipping out his bag of tricks later on for a series of decent action set-pieces but the inexplicable decision of scriptwriter David Marconi to cut the character’s backstory down to a second-half flashback renders his sudden flair for martial arts laughable.
In the early nineties, Leather’s book may have had something meaningful to say; in 2017, Campbell’s film tells only that its makers are deeply out of touch. When everything descends into an insulting climax, loaded with distressingly unquestioned police brutality and risible notions of governmental corruption, it becomes all too clear that this glimpse of contemporary Northern Ireland is a superficial fallacy. The real struggles of a still fractious nation are simply ignored.