Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Foreigner

There's probably a great book to be written about Jackie Chan and the not-quite-inevitable rise of China, and how he went from courting the west in the 1990s as the specter of the handover hung over Hong Kong to being one of the most enthusiastic Hong Kong stars to make the jump to the mainland, becoming a real cheerleader for China. And, hey, fair enough; it's his country one way or the other, although it's interesting to note that he's been one of the louder voices talking about how Chinese film is disrespected compared to other world cinemas, especially now that there's a lot of money in Mandarin-language film, even if it is almost entirely a matter of domestic grosses.

(For example, did you know a Jackie Chan movie made $250M this year? It's true, Kung Fu Yoga did that, almost entirely in the People's Republic.)

There's reason why Chinese film hasn't necessarily gained the respect that, say, South Korean film has despite the Chinese audience now being a tremendous part of any smart producer's business plan; the actual censorship board and the other pressures on filmmakers to produce a product that shows China in a certain light leads to films that often feel compromised, and the fact that the PRC is submitting Wolf Warrior 2 to the Oscars' foreign language category isn't a great look - it made a ton of money, but it's just an okay action movie whose rah-rah politics aren't going to appeal to the mostly-Western voters in the Academy.

But, both Chinese and American producers see too much money on the other side of the Pacific to not try and grab both, although there's been something almost deliciously random about how attempts to appeal to the "world market" succeed or fail: Donnie Yen in Star Wars doesn't make for a huge hit in China, but Donnie Yen in xXx does (while kind of tanking in America). Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville in Skiptrace goes straight to VOD in North America (to the point where people are saying Chan hasn't done an English-language movie since The Karate Kid), despite being a lot of fun. This comes out, and does okay in China (it'll probably make more there than in English-speaking territories), but seems like it really shouldn't - it's not very Chinese at all.

There's something a bit quixotic about how, being able to achieve the same sort of massive success back home that he couldn't sustain in Hollywood, he's now driven to find a way to have a crossover hit with both audiences and critics, an even bigger goal.

The Foreigner

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 October 2017 in AMC Stonebriar #22 (first-run, DCP)

That The Foreigner could likely function almost as well without his title character is either its main weakness or what makes it interesting: It's a fine IRA thriller with a potentially game-changing wild card, and though it does not play that card quite as often as it might, that very fact can sometimes keep the audience off-balance as much as it provides expected thrills.

It's been nearly twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement, but as the film opens, a bomb goes off in London, killing 18 and wounding more, with a group calling itself "the Authentic IRA" claiming responsibility. Deputy Minister for Northern Ireland Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) is immediately called away from his young lover Maggie (Charlie Murphy), to try and use his background - he was a member of both the IRA and Sinn Fein in his younger years - but though he professes shock, he also sees an opportunity to pressure cabinet minister Katherine Davies (Lia Williams) on a matter of pardoning fugitives, saying it could help defuse the situation, even as he meets other IRA leaders to demand an inventory of their arms and explosives to find who is supporting this rogue group. As all this is going on, Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) - an immigrant who lost his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) in the blast after losing the rest of his family fleeing Vietnam - visits first Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon), the head of the counter-terrorism investigation, and then Hennessy, looking for answers. Certain Hennessey knows more than he's saying, Quan resolves to pressure him in a way the former terrorist can understand.

Though the film opens with a cute scene between Quan and his daughter, and spends a fair amount of time showing his utter devastation upon losing her, the bulk of the film takes place in Belfast, focusing on Hennessy and treating the question of whether he had some part of planning the attack or whether he's just a smart politician who can work a bad situation to his advantage even as he tries to resolve it. The film plays this enjoyably close to the vest while also exploring how, despite the official peace, the situation remains fraught because there are older folks who can't let go and younger people who don't remember just how bad the bad old days were. It's an intriguing plot for a thriller on its own, meaty enough to carry the film.

Full review on EFC.

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