Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Foreigner (2017) - Movie Review

The plot: A department store bombing claims the life of restaurant manager Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan)’s daughter. Distraught at losing the only family he had left, he pressures terrorist-turned-government-official Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) to produce the names of the bombers responsible. As Quan’s desperation for answers reaches explosive levels, Hennessy is under his own pressure to find the culprits, as he digs into his old connections to find the rogue elements.

Well, it seems like Jackie Chan has gone full Taken on this one; I won’t claim to know all the ins and outs of Chan’s legendary filmography, but something this dark and morally dubious isn’t what first comes to mind. Then again, maybe it should. He fills in the usual action-thriller role of a former military officer who gets brought into action through the death of a loved one, and manages to bring some real intensity to it. He also gets to bring his fighting prowess to a more low-flash affair that turns out a lot better than it has any right to; more on that later.
Brosnan, in an equally unprecedented role, gets a chance to flex his natural accent for a change and manoeuvres through the very murky morality of his character very nicely. It’s basically a snapshot of how he could have been as James Bond in the Daniel Craig era; fitting, seeing as this is directed by Martin Campbell who gave us Casino Royale. Charlie Murphy (no, not Eddie’s brother, so we unfortunately don’t get to see her get served pancakes by Prince) is very effective in her hard-drinking pivotal role, Lia Williams as Brosnan’s superior adds some good pressure to his character, Ray Fearon as the leader of a British counter-terrorism unit plays that note well, and Dermot Crowley brings a lot of menace to his performance, especially in his scenes opposite Brosnan.

Aside from applying one of the better franchise reboots yet with Casino Royale, Martin Campbell also gave us the rather lukewarm Green Lantern film. I am so thankful that this film’s approach to action is more of the former than the latter. Chan’s involvement, both as the ‘lead’ actor and as a producer, might indicate that this will feature the usual Hong Kong-style fight scenes that he’s been a long-time champion of, and in a way, that is accurate. He gets a nice handful of moments where he can show off that he still has the moves but the action is a lot more grounded than that overall. We get explosions connected to the main terrorism plot, but most of the action involves gritty throwdowns and economical shootouts. Hand-to-hand combat with lots of hard hits meant for damage rather than spectacle, and gunfights where actual threat of death is a more pressing issue than how easily the enemy can miss the target two feet in front of them; textbook low-flash action. By finding a weird middle-ground between Chan’s roundhouse wheelhouse and Campbell’s penchant for brutalised realism, the film’s cred as an action film is fairly solid.

Its cred as a thriller, on the other hand, is far less even. Taking the usual politicized route for its thrills, with the Troubles of Ireland as a thematic backdrop, the plot is full of paranoia and deception… on Brosnan’s side of things. His dealings with the government at large, trying to find the terrorists responsible for the initial attack and tapping into his old contacts to track them down are all done very well, helped by Brosnan acting the absolute hell out of this material. While it does get into areas of confusion as to who is actually on whose side, similar to another thriller involving the IRA with ’71, it’s coherent enough to make the occasionally convoluted plot developments sink in properly.
But, apparently, this isn’t Liam’s story; it’s Quan’s. His grief fuels his character’s involvement in the story as a whole, and his interactions with Liam is one of the bigger initial pressures for Liam to find the culprits. However, as the story fleshes itself out, Quan fades so far into the background as to make the audience wonder why he, the titular character, is even here in the first place. Yeah, his actions inform Liam’s character but, with the amount of governmental and societal pressure on him already, they don’t feel entirely necessary to be included. Like, not even as a means to further the film’s themes about guerrilla factions destroying the lives of civilians.

I never, ever thought I would get to this point but let’s get into some conspiracy theorizing; there is something rather off about this film. Look up this film online and most articles and Wiki pages discussing it mention the main enemy being the IRA, the faction in the Troubles that wants Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom… except it isn’t. Or, at least, it isn’t in the version that made it to cinemas over here. In various scenes throughout the film, including a rather crucial exchange between Liam and Quan, the characters are clearly heard saying ‘UDA’, badly ADR-ed over what they’re actually saying. Not knowing all that much about the Troubles off-hand, I looked it up. Turns out that the UDA were the opposing side of the Troubles; the loyalists to the United Kingdom.
This change not only is a tad perplexing, altering the story by completely changing who the villains actually are, it’s also a little curious that I can find no other evidence of this online. With how much TMI detail I’ve gone into with these reviews over the years, I hope you will take me for my word that this actually was a thing that happened. But why? Australia is still very much attached to the British by sovereignty, so was it changed deliberately to fit their agenda? Was this an actual Harry Bosco situation to propagandize this otherwise pretty decent film? Is this a ploy to turn the Australian public against the Republic of Ireland, given how they have been repeatedly brought up during the marriage equality debate going on right now over here? Did Liam Hennessy help Hitler sink the Titanic? Did The Foreigner cause 9/11?!

Perhaps I’ve said too much.

All in all, jokes about minor details aside, this is pretty good. The acting is damn effective, particularly from Chan and Brosnan getting a chance to flex some real dramatic muscle here, the approach to the action scenes is very gritty and cathartically brutal, and while the plot can get tangled up in itself at times, it still provides a decent take on ideas of terrorism, national service and vigilantism… even if the title character feels out of place in what is supposedly his own movie.

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