Now that’s a kick in the head: A Western filmmaker is taking Jackie Chan seriously. “The Foreigner,” however, takes him a little too seriously. In the cheerless revenge thriller, the martial arts action star plays a Chinese-born Brit, Quan. A restaurant owner in London, he is out to kill bombers from an Irish Republican Army splinter group behind the terror attack that killed his daughter.
So, don’t expect a smile, much less Chan’s trademark physical humor, in a single frame of the nearly two-hour movie. Quan’s efforts pit him against a former IRA leader turned British government official (Pierce Brosnan) who has his own agenda for tracking down the culprits. Based on Stephen Leather’s novel “The Chinaman,” the movie makes it hard to empathize with any of the characters — including the protagonist, who is more than willing to hurt people before he even knows if they’re connected to the bombing campaign. And the conspiracy behind the terrorists is so confusing that the people involved don’t even seem to fully understand it.
Director Martin Campbell does know a thing or two about how to shoot an action scene after successfully reinvigorating the James Bond franchise twice — with ‘Golden Eye’ in 1995, and ‘Casino Royale’ 11 years later. Campbell has never had as physically talented a lead as he has with Chan, who’s peerless at performing choreographed fight sequences. The actor puts those muscle-bound whippersnappers in CGI-heavy superhero movies to shame. Chan saves the day… and this picture. In every action beat, the now-63-year-old star shows glimpses of the balletic action chops that made him a generational talent in the genre for so many years. The role comes two decades after he seemed poised for superstardom on this side of the Pacific.
Hollywood, though, didn’t seem to know how to properly showcase his Bruce Lee-meets-Buster Keaton appeal. For every ‘Rush Hour’ there was dreck like ‘The Tuxedo’ or ‘Forbidden Kingdom’. Lately, American audiences know him for voicing the odd animated movie or babysitting Jaden Smith in ‘The Karate Kid’ remake. We’re still waiting for that breakthrough, since ‘The Foreigner’ doesn’t match the punch of his best Hong Kong movies. But this somber turn is still the best the West has given him in a while. That alone should put a smile on fans’ faces.