There’s long line of movies about fathers who seek vengeance against those who have harmed their wives or daughters (or both), and in “The Foreigner” Jackie Chan, of all people, follows in the footsteps of the likes of the Charles Bronson of the “Death Wish” series and the Liam Neeson of “Taken.” He plays a London restaurateur, Ngoc Minh Quan, who was trained by US Special Forces during the Vietnam War and later endured the death of his wife and two of his daughters at the hands of Thai pirates as they tried to escape the communist regime. (To be honest, the details of Quan’s backstory are a mite hazy, being delivered late in the picture via some quick exposition and flashbacks.)
In any event, the old fellow has one daughter left, on whom he dotes—Fan (Katie Leung), a high schooler he talks with about her plans for the prom before dropping her off at a restaurant, which is promptly bombed, killing her and a dozen others. The perpetrators identify themselves as a splinter group of the IRA, and the grieving father, deciding to use his old skills to avenge himself on Fan’s killers, hones in on Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), an erstwhile IRA leader now serving as a deputy minister in the Belfast government, as the man who can give him the names of the bombers. Leaving the restaurant in the hands of loyal family friend Lam (Tao Liu), he’s off to Northern Ireland to confront Hennessy. And when the politician tells him he doesn’t have the names, Quan gives him a warning shot by blowing up the lavatory beside his opulent office.
That sends Hennessy—and his many men—on a hunt for Quan, who is always one step ahead of his pursuers, even after Liam goes, along with his wife Mary (Orla Brady), to their farm. Quan even tracks Hennessy to a liaison with his young mistress Maggie (Charlie Murphy) and takes a photograph of them together, which he threatens to release to the press. And he has more bombs to plant in order to force the politician to reveal those names.
Hennessy, meanwhile, is caught in a struggle involving various IRA factions and the British government, which he is trying to placate by identifying the perpetrators while persuading his ministerial boss to release some imprisoned IRA members as a goodwill gesture. Among those he will involve in his queries are his old IRA ally Kavanagh (Michael McElhatton) and his own nephew Sean (Rory Fleck Byrne), who, as an erstwhile British soldier in Iraq, can perhaps track Quan down in the woods adjacent to the Hennessy farm while brokering a cooperative arrangement with the young man’s old commander, Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), who is now heading the British investigation of the bombing.
The IRA side of the plot, which grows increasing complex—involving betrayal of both a professional and personal kind (the mob doings of “The Sopranos” had nothing on these IRA conflicts) comes to take up more and more screen time, leaving Quan offscreen for long sections of the picture as Brosnan assumes center stage. Still, while the erstwhile James Bond fumes, bristles and bellows effectively (downing what appears to be gallons of whiskey in the process), Chan, though mostly relegated to dour, depressed close-ups, gets the opportunity to engage in periodic martial-arts sequences with Hennessy’s men, and finally to confront Fan’s murderers. The mano-a-mano action is well directed by Martin Campbell, an old hand at that sort of thing (he helmed two Bond pictures, including “GoldenEye” with Brosnan as well as the 2006 “Casino Royale”), though it must be admitted that as shot by cinematographer David Tattersall and edited by Angela M. Catanzaro, it looks a bit murky and unclear, almost as if some of the details of the fights were being deliberately obscured.
Otherwise the film makes good use of the UK locations, and the tech team stages the explosions that punctuate the picture efficiently. The supporting cast adds a sense of authenticity to the goings-on as well, with McElhatton and Byrne standing out in the large ensemble. The Ulster government might not be too pleased with how it is depicted—at least in terms of the machinations among the various ex-IRA factions (and the intimation that they’ve kept weapons stocks hidden). But the British intelligence service, while depicted as quite efficient, might also be displeased at the implication that they are very willing to overlook legal niceties in their treatment of terrorists.
“The Foreigner” is in many respects a fairly conventional paternal revenge movie, gussied up with some oddly anachronistic political machinations, but it’s well-made and offers its stars some chances to shine. It’s certainly to be preferred to “The American,” with George Clooney, although a double bill would make for a nicely symmetrical marquee.