Jackie Chan has broken a lot of bones over the years — his own, and those of his unfortunate onscreen rivals — but for the life of me, I can’t remember ever seeing Chan cry. But cry he does in “The Foreigner,” an old-fashioned one-man vendetta thriller very much in the vein of its director Martin Campbell’s gnarly 1985 miniseries “Edge of Darkness,” in which the opening stretch allows the action-comedy stunt master a chance to flex an entirely different muscle: his tear ducts.
Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, an immigrant restaurant owner who demands justice after his daughter is killed in an IRA-linked terrorist attack. Yes, you read that right: The villains in this U.K.-set action movie are Northern Irish radicals who call themselves the “New IRA” — which is just one of the curiosities you get when taking a pulpy 1992 suspense novel published five years before the IRA ceasefire and attempting to set it a quarter-century later.
That book would be Stephen Leather’s “The Chinaman,” whose name has wisely been changed (although not that wisely, because who really wants to see a movie generically called “The Foreigner”?). And while the title, time and a few small details may have been altered or updated, the result is nothing if not dated, even if its premise clearly echoes the edginess of living in Europe today. For starters, practically everyone in “The Foreigner” still refers to Chan’s character as “the Chinaman,” which is the kind of description that one associates more with episodes of “Deadwood” than modern-day Belfast or London (the epithet is by no means equivalent to the more specific labels of “Frenchman” or “Englishman,” in that it has traditionally been used as a blanket term for Asians of all nationalities).
But — and this is a key distinction — the movie is keenly aware of the West’s long tradition of white-on-Asian racism, and “The Foreigner” flips the script on the tradition of Hollywood studio movies in which a white hero kicks foreign butt in some exotic country. Ask yourself, what is the U.K. equivalent of someone upsetting an innocent vendor’s fruit cart during a footchase through a crowded bazaar? Could it be Chan blowing up the lavatory of a shady bureaucrat? Or perhaps punching holes in the walls, windows and roof of a cozy Irish bed-and-breakfast? Beyond that novelty, “The Foreigner” amounts to an above-average but largely by-the-numbers action movie in which Chan does battle with generic thugs and shadowy political forces. The message here is unmistakably not to underestimate or ignore Asian immigrants, who just might be elite human weapons, trained by the U.S. government (and even if they’re not, deserve to be treated with the same respect as other citizens).
Financed mostly with Chinese money, but directed by two-time James Bond helmer Campbell (who reunites here with “GoldenEye” star Pierce Brosnan), “The Foreigner” offers Chan a unique chance to emote before shifting into more conventional vigilante territory. In the opening scene, Quan picks up his teenage daughter from her London school and drives her to a local dress shop, where a bomb kills 19. The authorities — including Brosnan’s ex-IRA deputy minister, Liam Hennessy — are astonishingly slow to react, but Quan persists. He shows up and waits humbly at the London police station, where he attempts to bribe the (non-white) lead investigator (Ray Fearon) for the names of those responsible. When that fails, he starts to track Hennessy, whom he (correctly) assumes will lead him directly to the culprits.
Through all of this, Chan looks sadder than we’ve ever seen him, his eyes droopy and wet with tears. He shuffles as he walks, half-paralyzed with grief (or perhaps it’s just the decades of punishment he’s given his joints), and one wonders whether the character he’s playing could so much as block a punch, much less take on a room full of terrorists. “The Foreigner” appears to be a different kind of role for Chan — one of those grieving-parent types who puts the pressure on a law-enforcement hero to do his job — and while that may be true to a degree, it ultimately offers the same opportunities for elaborate displays of martial-arts dexterity that we’ve come to expect from Chan in the past (along with a rather elaborate and entirely unnecessary backstory about how he acquired these skills and why he’s so angry).
When asking nicely gets him nowhere, Quan travels to Belfast to confront Hennessy directly, planting a series of bombs — in his office, his bodyguards’ car, his country safe house — to get Hennessy’s attention. But Hennessy is distracted. He’s busy trying to arrange his own deal (for the pardons of scores of old IRA buddies), and juggling complicated personal relationships with not just the movement’s former leaders (any of whom could be responsible) but also his wife (Orla Brady) and mistress (Charlie Murphy), either or both of whom could also be involved. All of which makes it easy for the “old man” to go on “running circles around the lot of us.”
But why, in a world with so many real human threats, does “The Foreigner” resurrect the “Troubles” between Northern Ireland and the crown? If anything, this feels giving the West a taste of its own medicine, since entertainment and elections alike have long drummed up fear and hysteria around anyone of off-white skin color, when the statistics show that mass killings are just as — if not altogether more — likely to be perpetrated by white people. In the movie, multiple Asian teens are killed in an all-too-plausible (albeit dated) act of political terrorism dreamed up and carried out by a faction of the IRA. It’s an effective reminder that however scared white Londoners are of foreigners, the foreigners living among them have even more reason to be afraid, living in a country where they could wind up as collateral damage in senseless white-on-white violence. And because this time around Asians are the ones telling the story, it falls to a superstar “Chinaman” to set things right.