Friday, October 13, 2017

The Foreigner: Not to be ignored

The Foreigner (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity and some sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.13.17

This film likely isn’t on your radar.

It should be.

Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, right) is kind enough to grant some
time to Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan), who hopes to learn the identity of the terrorists
who killed his daughter, back in London. The meeting ... does not go well.
Director Martin Campbell and scripter David Marconi have transformed prolific British thriller author Stephen Leather’s 1992 novel, The Chinaman, into a crackerjack espionage drama: an absolutely perfect vehicle for star Jackie Chan, shrewdly playing a character his actual age (63 years young).

And while it’s true that the beloved martial arts sensation no longer hurls himself out of trees, or through multiple plate-glass windows, he still has moves. Plenty of them.

Marconi’s script is a clever update of Leather’s novel, which was written while the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s brutal bombing campaign was climaxing (and which, mercifully, would conclude with a cease-fire in 1997). This big-screen adaptation benefits from taut direction, crisp editing and a devious narrative laden with twists and double-crosses.

And, most of all, from Chan’s captivating portrayal of a character who completely wins our hearts and minds.

The contemporary setting introduces Quan Ngoc Minh (Chan) as a quiet London restaurateur, who dotes on his teenage daughter, Fan (Katie Leung): the sole family member left after a couple of earlier tragedies. Campbell and Marconi deftly sketch their loving relationship during a prologue that feels ominous because of its mundane normality.

Our fears prove justified, when Fan’s enthusiastic dive into a dress shop turns tragic as a terrorist bomb goes off. Credit for the heinous act is claimed by a group calling itself The Authentic IRA.

Although swept into in a maelstrom of grief that threatens to drown him — Chan’s expression and body language are heartbreaking, during these early scenes — Quan patiently, doggedly navigates “proper channels” in an effort to secure a piece of information that he deems naïvely simple: the name, or names, of the bombers.

He finally gains a chat with Commander Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), head of the British anti-terrorist task force charged with investigating the attack. Although sympathetic, Bromley assures Quan that his team is doing everything possible, and sends him home. But Quan cannot let it rest, much to the mounting concern of his restaurant partner, Lam (Tao Liu), who clearly loves him.

Meanwhile, Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, allowing his Irish brogue to flow) has gotten a stern warning from British Ministry of Defense official Katherine Davies (Lia Williams): Identify and arrest those responsible, or we’ll have boots on the ground. Although a former IRA operative himself, Hennessy now heads an Irish ministry that has collaborated with the British government since 1997, in an effort to uphold the peace accord.

Getting to the bottom of this assault by an apparent splinter faction — and quickly — is in Northern Ireland’s best interests, and Hennessy knows it.

But as the days and weeks drag on, “quickly” proves insufficiently swift for Quan. Frustrated beyond endurance by the paralysis of bureaucracy, he prepares a nondescript green van in a manner most unbecoming a humble restaurateur. And we suddenly wonder: Who is this guy?

Quan drives to Belfast and is allowed a brief meeting with Hennessy, who offers condolences. Quan requests the names of those responsible for the bombing. Exasperation beginning to rise above sympathy, Hennessy insists that he simply doesn’t know. You can find out, Quan replies, with quiet, fixed-stare conviction.

Now well and truly annoyed, Hennessy dismisses his visitor. Quan retreats, with a promise.

At which point, matters become ... interesting. And exciting, suspenseful and thoroughly engaging.

When Constant Companion leaned in, toward the end of the second act, and whispered “I love this film,” she spoke truth. The third act is even better.

Our unreserved involvement with Quan’s impossible quest notwithstanding, the film also gets plenty of juice from the complex relationships and politically charged atmosphere that swirl around Hennessy. Professionally, he balances on the razor’s edge: on the one hand, wanting to maintain the fragile peace; on the other, mindful of the nationalistic fervor typified by fellow Irish minister Hugh McGrath (Dermot Crowley) and his constituents, who are blind to the generation-ago bloodbath they’re too young to remember.

Hennessy’s personal life also is chaotic, his wife Mary (Orla Brady) clearly beginning to suspect the affair that he’s having with the much younger Maggie (Charlie Murphy).

These intriguing character dynamics are augmented further by the fascinating procedural elements that Marconi works into his script: the rigorous efforts of intelligent, dedicated anti-terrorist operatives — crisply staged by Campbell and editor Angela M. Catanzaro — as they analyze every scrap of information, while mounting the sort of all-stops-out investigation that we’d love to believe takes place on our side of the pond, under such circumstances. (They’ve got more cameras. So far.)

Chan’s sympathetic performance propels everything else, thanks to the underdog folly of Quan’s stubborn and increasingly dangerous antics. (It’s not as if a Chinese man can “blend” well in Belfast.) Quan’s age and vulnerability are visible throughout: This guy isn’t the daredevil of Chan’s Supercop days. Quan endures much throughout this story, and we wince at each body-blow during the increasingly brutal skirmishes persuasively staged by stunt coordinators Greg Powell and Guanhua Han.

Brosnan, in turn, carries the story’s expanding espionage element. Although introduced as a prancing government pony, Hennessy’s three-piece-suited surface gloss conceals a much more complicated individual. The fascination of Brosnan’s performance comes from the subtle ways in which Hennessy’s civilized manner slowly yields to the IRA mercenary he has tried, for so long, to leave behind.

Rory Fleck Byrne exudes an appropriately lethal aura as Sean Morrison, Hennessy’s nephew, who initially is tasked with liaising secretly with Bromley — because an Irish agent collaborating openly with the British would be anathema to hard-charging nationalists — but later is asked to employ his more lethal skills.

The delectable Murphy is bubbly charm as Hennessy’s girlfriend Maggie; Brady, in turn, makes his wife Mary increasingly waspish and exasperated, as their lives are upended by a situation that spirals rapidly out of control. Rufus Jones is believably scruffy as Ian Wood, the newspaper journalist who receives the post-blast confirmation call from the bombers.

Cliff Martinez’s score, less melodic and more propulsively atmospheric, relies heavily on pounding blasts of low-end synth. The results are effective, if not terribly noteworthy.

Everything is orchestrated with tightly controlled snap by Campbell, who knows the territory well; his résumé includes a pair of the better 007 thrillers — GoldenEye and Casino Royale — along with the terrific 1985 TV miniseries, Edge of Darkness.

The Foreigner is an energetic, meticulously plotted suspenser. Don’t let it get away.

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