“Jackie Cries” doesn’t quite have the same ring as “Garbo Smiles,” but like Ninotchka, The Foreigner does at least briefly, maybe even radically, subvert the iconography of the star at its center. For decades, we’ve seen Jackie Chan break bones—and not just his own—throughout his largely comedic approach to frenetic action. Martin Campbell’s film announces itself as decidedly darker fare for Chan when his character, Quan, loses his daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), in the opening scene, when a London bank falls victim to an I.R.A. bombing. Quan spends the remainder of the first act sadly shuffling around with his shoulders hunched like Charlie Brown and shedding the occasional tear—the sort of posturing that’s way outside of Chan’s comfort zone.
When Quan’s sorrow soon takes on the form of implacable revenge, The Foreigner shifts uneasily into the terrain of a latter-day Liam Neeson action vehicle, with Quan revealing himself as a man of few words who simply won’t take “no” for an answer. After the police and an Irish government official, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), with ties to the I.R.A. are unable or unwilling to give Quan the names of the bombers responsible for his daughter’s death, Quan puts his former special forces training to good use by pressuring Liam to give him what he wants. While Quan resorts to increasingly violent tactics, planting a homemade bomb in Liam’s workplace bathroom and later stalking and toying with him at his family’s country house, a relatively by-the-numbers political thriller involving infighting between various factions of the I.R.A. takes center stage, leaving Chan to skulk around in the background.
Based on the 1992 novel The Chinaman by Stephen Leather, The Foreigner approaches the dangers of recent terrorist activity in London by simply invoking the return of the Northern Irish activism that peaked in the late ’80s with the Troubles. But even overlooking its fictionalized account of such an inexplicable political resurgence, the film falters in its needlessly convoluted plotting, which includes an endless parade of double-crossings involving Liam’s loved ones, from his wife (Orla Brady) to his mistress (Charlie Murphy) to his nephew (Rory Fleck Byrne). Liam, who’s de facto in charge of the I.R.A. in its current form, is surrounded by people who have different opinions on how much he should capitulate to the Brits in order to free his I.R.A. buddies who’ve been imprisoned for decades. The film becomes so overstuffed with exposition in regard to all this friction and discord that the characters are reduced to ciphers defined by their predetermined political roles.
In The Foreigner’s homestretch, Campbell heavily leans on the sort of muscular action that displays Chan’s continued commitment to put his body at considerable risk for his kinetic art. And while these cohesive, efficient fight scenes occasionally inject a thrilling sense of immediacy to the proceedings, the narrative’s sense of bulkiness remains unalleviated. By relegating its titular hero to a supporting role, the film neither gives Quan’s tragic circumstances any defining shape nor does it effectively thread together its two storylines in any meaningful way. When these two disparate halves finally converge in the end, it results in a dramatic whimper that highlights how poorly conceived and developed the relationship is between its two leads.