Action movies usually present powerful, good people going up against even more powerful bad people, in an unequal struggle in which good ultimately wins. That’s the formula.
But a few years ago, the makers of “Taken” got the idea to combine that form with a rags-to-riches structure. In the case of “Taken,” this translated into the story of a gentle, humble father who is redeemed in the eyes of his daughter by springing into action and killing about 100 people.
This structure has the built-in appeal of being emotionally satisfying — and yet funny. In the case of the “Taken” movies, it’s just wonderfully ridiculous watching nice, easygoing Liam Neeson turn into a homicidal maniac. And now, there’s “The Foreigner” offering the same kind of absurd satisfaction, with Jackie Chan as a sweet little guy, an older fellow that no one takes seriously, who becomes a killing machine.
It’s the first of Chan’s movies to match the quality of his early work in Hong Kong. It makes use of his martial-arts expertise and physical gracefulness, as well as the fact that he’s now in his early 60s. The movie also allows Chan to demonstrate that he can act. In between setting traps, blowing things up and rendering people unconscious, Chan plays grief in “The Foreigner,” and his face contains all the sadness of the world.
He loses his daughter in the movie’s first scene. Quan (Chan) drops her off at a store in London, and a terrorist bomb goes off seconds later, killing her and several others. It turns out that the bombing is the work of an Irish Republican Army splinter group that no one has ever heard of. Pierce Brosnan, as a former IRA member now working within the British government, is put in charge of finding the people responsible.
Quan wants to find them, too; and he gets the idea into his head that Hennessy (that is, Brosnan) can tell him how. Quan is quiet, grief-stricken and poorly dressed. He’s small, polite and has a thick accent. He looks like the farthest thing from a threat when he starts hanging around Hennessy’s office asking for the names of his daughter’s murderers.
And then we realize that this meek, modest older gentleman, who seems like the most harmless man in the world, has some moves. Yes, he has those Jackie Chan moves, and he is about to use every one of them.
The first time Chan starts flipping people and throwing them through windows, the impulse is to laugh out loud. But at the same time, that moment, as well as every subsequent one like it, has the visceral satisfaction of watching the underdog get in some shots. And that’s basically the appeal of “The Foreigner,” which is something like the appeal of “Taken” — a combination of laughing at it, while being totally swept along by it.
Unlike “Taken,” which has a simple story, “The Foreigner” has an intricate and well-developed plot involving many characters inside the government, the IRA and law enforcement. Most of those threads have more to do with Hennessy than Quan, which means that Brosnan has the most screen time. And he’s terrific, trying to juggle a dozen different threats, any one of which might ruin him, all while dealing with a crazy little guy who won’t stop coming after him.
Half the satisfaction of “The Foreigner” is in the spectacle of this handsome, unflappable patrician having his natural composure annihilated.
Given the story, it’s hard to imagine how anyone might come up with a sequel to “The Foreigner,” but the same could have been said for “Taken.” In any case, someone has finally figured out what to do with Jackie Chan in America. This formula is the right one.