Every action star has to change his repertoire when he clears 60.
Brawls characters played by Stallone, Gibson, Neeson, Willis and Schwarzenegger used to settle with their fists start relying on duffel bags filled with guns and grenades. The theme becomes vengeance, the pictures turn pitiless, the violence sadistic.
Even for the great and once seemingly ageless Jackie Chan.
One of the world’s lightest, most likable movie stars turns dark as a father hellbent on revenge in “The Foreigner,” a long and generally unpleasant “First Blood/Death Wish/Taken” turn for an actor whose fights are now exercises in creative editing with the unmistakable air of stunt doubles. At 63, playing a Vietnam War vet terrorizing Irish politicians with lingering ties to the old IRA, Chan shows us something we hadn’t really noticed when he was having beautifully-staged slap fights with bad guys and playing straight man to the likes of Chris Tucker and Owen Wilson.
He can’t act.
Quan Ngoc Minh runs a Chinese restaurant in London and dotes on his only daughter (Katie Leung). Then she dies in a bomb blast. The news tells him “The Authentic IRA” did it, and quotes a Northern Irish politician (Pierce Brosnan), formerly of Sinn Fein and the old Irish Republican Army, that he and his generation know nothing about the bombing, that it was carried out “by hotheads who don’t know any better,” young people out to wreck the 19 year-old Irish Peace Accord.
And Quan doesn’t buy it. He tries to bribe the head police inspector (Ray Fearon) for information. Then he starts hassling Deputy Minister Hennessy (Brosnan).
“You know something,” he insists, when he’s actually put on the phone with the guy. “I want names.”
“Names” he says when he comes by the guy’s office. Hennessy, whom we’ve seen rattled and taken aback by the attack, whom we watch call meetings, harangue subordinates and cajole his British bosses in an effort to get A) to the bottom of this and B) make some political hay out of it, assures Mr. Quan “I can’t help you” even as he’s angling to “take care of this…INTERNALLY” and in the old ways.
So Quan stalks him and sends him indiscreet pictures of the man and his mistress. In the manner of every “Man of Violence Returns to His Violent Past,” he packs his duffel bags with the tools of his old trade and walks away from his modest business.
He blows up Hennessy’s office. “I want names.” Then his Northern Irish farmhouse. “Give me names.” His Jaguar? “Names.”
Through all this mayhem, Chan wears one stone-faced expression, a strained attempt at showing grief — a man drained of emotion. It’s the best he can manage.
The action sequences, showing Quan’s old Vietnam War tricks (punji sticks, hand-made bombs, gunplay) are standard issue Rambo stuff. He is the omniscient, omnipotent foe “with very particular skills,” as Liam Neeson’s character always put it in “Taken.” He can find out anything, guess EXACTLY where those tracking him will go, get into any secured location and dress any wound (the “self-surgery” scene mandatory for films of this genre).
Whatever action Bond, Zorro and “Green Lantern” directing vet Martin Campbell cooks up, whatever complications this layered thriller of assorted Irish folk fighting “that bloody Chinaman” delivers, the scenes of the actual bombers holed up in a London apartment, none of it involves urgency.
Brosnan, channeling his best brogue, may act rings around Chan. But we never sense panic. Characters under direct threat, bombs going off moments earlier right in their personal space, walk and gripe out in the open, stand in front of exposed windows and crawl into bed for a good night’s sleep after their lives have been directly threatened by this or that deafening blast.
The film’s lack of sophistication extends the caricaturing from Quan — Vietnamese but called “that bloody Chinaman” — to the murderously old school whiskey-belting Irish and the torture-and-execution happy Brits.
All of which points to a movie built on ancient Western action tropes, but aimed at placating the Chinese and Asian market, where the all-knowing Man of Peace, Man of Asia, teaches Europe a thing or two.
And that, along with the once-sweet Chan’s sour turn, is a turn-off.
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexual material
Cast: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Katie Leung, Charlie Murphy, Ray Fearon, Orla Brady
Credits: Directed by Martin Campbell, script by David Marconi, based on a Stephen Leather novel. An STX release.
Running time: 1:54