Is there anyone who has contributed more to cinematic entertainment than Jackie Chan? Short of maaaaaybe Steven Spielberg, no. Certainly not in my 33 years of film consumption. Jackie Chan is THE greatest martial arts entertainer of all time. His stamp on cinema is indelible. And while my proclamation could indeed be refuted, most would be in agreement that anyone who tries to do so is a jerk. No one wants to be the person who talks smack on Academy Award Winner, Jackie Chan. The man has broken more bones for our entertainment than Evel Knievel, and done so without unleashing the monstrosity that is Robbie Knievel into the world.
Even in his worst movies, the moment he steps into frame a form of magic occurs. In an instant I am reminded that of all the millions of lifetimes in which the powers that be could have shat me into existence, I was lucky enough to be given a time when Academy Award Winner, Jackie Chan existed too.
With The Foreigner, Jackie Chan’s first major film since winning an Academy Award, we’ve reached the logical conclusion of the “older actor helms an action-revenge film” era. While it could be argued that Death Wish was the progenitor of the form, the modern version of this is accredited to Taken, the surprise hit which reinvented Liam Neeson as an action hero. Sean Penn tried it with The Gunman, which, despite the actor’s natural propensity toward anger and violence, was embarrassing to say the least. We’re about to see Bruce Willis take a stab at it with, well, Death Wish. So with all of these aging actors being retrofit into what’s typically a younger man’s genre, it’s about damn time that Academy Award Winner, Jackie Chan, now 63, be given a chance a to do the same.
Unfortunately, the results are a little less Taken, and a little more Taken 3.
The Foreigner is based on the 1992 novel, The Chinaman, and despite hackneyed attempts at updating the tale to the modern day, it feels very much like a piece of entertainment from 1992. Academy Award Winner, Jackie Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a Chinese (or maybe Vietnamese?) business owner in London. When a fringe group calling themselves the “New IRA” sets off a bomb which kills Quan’s daughter, he decides to get revenge. At the same time, a former IRA member, now Deputy Minister, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, putting on a phenomenal performance), is trying to keep the peace … but is also up to some shady dealings of his own. Quan decides, based on pretty much no information, that Hennessy can give him the names of the bombers, and goes on a mission of revenge.
What’s odd is that the two main plot-lines (Academy Award winner Jackie Chan wants revenge / Pierce Brosnan deals with murky politics), don’t really feel like they’re in the same movie. In fact, it feels like two superior movies mashed into one diet thriller. I can’t imagine watching a politics talkie and having a desire for Academy Award winner Jackie Chan to show up and start breaking arms. I also can’t imagine watching your typical Jackie Chan (Oscar winner) movie and thinking that it needs political intrigue.
It’s only half explained how Quan obtained his “certain set of skills,” but for some reason it’s extremely difficult to buy him having any skills at all. In the handful of excellent sequences of fisticuffs it feels like Quan is an entirely different character. This speaks to Chan’s Oscar-winning acting ability for sure — the power combo of his puppy dog eyes and meek stature evokes exactly the amount of empathy that a revenge thriller needs in order to sell us on carnage — but without sufficient background regarding why he’s actually so deadly (‘because Vietnam’ is the best we get), it almost feels like we’re just supposed to assume that since he’s played by Academy Award winner Jackie Chan, karate is just part of his genome. Odd that it’s easier to buy Oskar Schindler as a master of hand-to-hand combat than an actual martial arts practitioner.
It’s also a bit unsettling that for the bulk of the film, Quan (Academy Award winner, Jackie Chan) is blowing things up based on a pretty loose set of assumptions. We in the audience know that his assumptions are correct, and that his targets are indeed villainous, but him? He’s pretty much just flailing, and putting a lot of innocent people in harms way as a result.
The sparsely distributed action beats are exciting, and it’s amazing to see how well Academy Award winner, Jackie Chan can still move, but the “does all his own stunts” days are clearly over. His age suits the material well (few can articulate the pain of receiving a blow quite so well as even a young Chan*), but his fighting style remains a bit too circus-like for something so serious. And as far as I’m concerned, even though he is indeed an Academy Award winning performer, Jackie Chan and giant guns just don’t mix. Director Martin Campbell (who helmed Brosnan’s first Bond outing) definitely nails the craft, but the script just can’t rise to it.
But all is not lost. The Foreigner proves that Chan (proud owner of an Academy Award) has more than enough juice left in him to fuel a third act to his Academy Award-winning career, but we’re going to have to wait for the right material.
The Foreigner opens today in Philly area theaters.
*Academy Award winner!
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.