This year has been a real whirlwind when it comes to delivering on trailers. On the one hand, there were pleasant surprises like Logan and It, as well as Blade Runner 2049, a movie that had no right being as excellent as it was considering the expectations behind it. On the other end of the spectrum, there were movies like Atomic Blonde and Alien: Covenant, both of which failed to deliver on my ever-so-finnicky expectations. Unfortunately The Foreigner falls into the latter half. It had a great trailer, a great director (Martin Campbell), and a solid cast. Despite that, the end result is a middling, dull in parts, and, most frustratingly, it does not deliver on the magic of its premise.
I mean, how do you make a movie about Old Man Jackie Chan beating the fuck out of the Irish Republican Army? In what world does that fail to be the best movie ever made? Hell, if they handed the script off to another director and called for a do-over, I'd pay to see it all over again.
The Foreigner is most interesting when it hints at the world of politics and the world of terrorism and law enforcement being a constant struggle of compromises. It presents the murky world of British governance and old Irish grudges as being two worlds, intertwined. With the IRA it presents a world where difficult ideals are easily undercut by radical purists and where even the finest of beliefs can be undone by expediency. On the other hand, you have the "Brits," who only care about results. And then you have Jackie Chan, who can build bombs. Which is nice. I kind of wish they made the movie about him.
That, ultimately, politics is a business of relationships, and without an underlying trust and affection, it does not matter what your end goals are. Nor do your tactics. In the world of The Foreigner, character is destiny. In all of this, Jackie Chan’s mourning father is the only man of pure purpose and of pure drive and, as such, he’s the only one who seems to walk out of the movie unscathed (of course, not literally, mind you). Of course, that’s the movie’s problem. That Jackie Chan beating up dumb paddies with a step ladder isn’t the main draw of the film. It's Irish internecine politics. The fact that I, James Kislingbury, do not care about a movie where in the complexities of modern Irish radical nationalism is on display is a problem.
And, frankly, it beggars belief to take the IRA seriously in any way, shape, or form in the year of our Lord 2017. Maybe it plays better in the UK and in Ireland, where these stories hit much closer to home. Maybe they even play better in China or in Asia where the IRA is just a series of letters. But who knows?
The IRA always felt like a safe stand-in for more deadly international terror groups (and more controversial ones). Don't want to piss off the Palestinians or the Saudis? Throw the IRA in there. The Red Army Faction doesn't exist any more? Throw in the IRA. De Gaulle is out of office? Throw in the IRA. Get Sean Bean on the phone or some poor dead toe-rag from Game of Thrones and call it a casting session. I mean, whose feelings are we going to hurt? Plus, everybody knows who they are. Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.
Plus, how bad can the IRA be? They tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher. That's a noble endeavor. It’s arguably Alzheimer’s one saving grace.
Ultimately, The Foreigner seems to be caught between several different movies, each of which succeeds where this one fails. You have the staid, idealist Boy Scoutery of Patriot Games and its IRA villains. You have Campbell’s own Casino Royale, which is a perfect film on every level. Lastly, you have Old Jackie’s chef character reflected in Clint Eastwood’s Best Picture winner, Unforgiven. Then, lastly, there’s Edge of Darkness, a movie so close to Martin Campbell’s heart, that he made it twice, once as a mini-series in England and another as a feature in America (staring Ray Winstone and slightly pre-freak-out Mel Gibson). But the problem isn’t necessarily that this movie isn’t as good as those. The problem is that each of those movies is great because they succeeded in being unique and being good in a unique way.
The Foreigner isn’t bad enough to be depressing. If it looks like anything, it looks like itself. Its broken, grey shape is best reflected in its titular character, brilliantly played by Jackie Chan, as a broken down, hobbled old man who had one good thing hidden inside of him. The one difference is that Jackie Chan and his character actually came through.