In the vigilante thriller “The Foreigner,” Jackie Chan plays a China-born British transplant solemnly hunting IRA terrorists who killed his daughter in a London bombing. The eponymous handle fits as we watch Chan brokenly shuffling around his adopted home, then gathering himself to prowl Belfast.
But as the action continues to unfold, and the story delves into intrigue surrounding politico Pierce Brosnan, you realize that maybe the title’s fit is too good. Chan isn’t just a foreigner in the narrative, he’s a frequently irrelevant outsider in his own starring vehicle. If the film’s Asian and Western production conglomerate is aiming for cinematic fusion cuisine, this sure isn’t gourmet. (At least they went with something more palatable than their source novel’s title, “The Chinaman.”)
The movie marks an unheralded reunion for Brosnan and his first James Bond director, Martin Campbell, who reminds us that for his various journeyman credits (see “Edge of Darkness”), he also crafted “GoldenEye” and “Casino Royale.” He reaffirms his chops in a crisply efficient opener conveying the bomb’s devastating abruptness. While this genre really needs to retire the audio cliché of post-blast tinnitus, there’s power in shots of Chan’s high-mileage features pierced with glass shards.
Quan (Chan) presses police for the culprits’ names with quiet relentlessness. When it becomes clear that they’re stumped, he taps into a long-buried special forces background he’s mumbled about, and turns his attention to his next best bet. That would be flinty, tattooed-and-bespectacled government minister Hennessey (Brosnan), a onetime terrorist who’s now a bureaucratic peacekeeper with deep ties among both the IRA hierarchy and the Brits.
There’s some sleek revenge-fantasy satisfaction to be had in scenes of Quan taking it to Hennessey, who genuinely doesn’t have answers but sure feels the pressure to deliver. American audiences may be too accustomed to an upbeat Chan for his impassiveness to work as it should, but he’s game, and certainly still limber. Meanwhile, Brosnan’s character plays a bit like an Irish, polished Tony Soprano, with his dicey connections, his tightrope-walking between volatile factions, and his lusty, twisty personal life.
Campbell seems to understand what he has in his old mate Brosnan, and shines the spotlight progressively brighter in his direction. But if the movie can’t maintain its interest in Chan, why should we? This narrative splice job simply doesn’t hold together. Call it a taut mess or a hot mess, take your pick.
Directed by Martin Campbell. Written by David Marconi, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather. Starring Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 114 minutes. R (violence, language, some sexual material).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.