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The Foreigner: Vendetta dovetails political powerplay in a grimy thriller

Viewers can get lost in a complicated network of crisscrossing characters, but The Foreigner cares for the politics as much as for the violence.

With a tangle of parties and individuals involved, The Foreigner dissects the ambiguity and multifacetedness of its seemingly straightforward title. Adapted from Stephen Leather’s 1992 book The Chinaman, this China-UK co-produced movie leans on Jackie Chan’s Chinese-British character as the central figure. However, considering the current political circumstance in Northern Ireland, “the foreigner” might imply more than that.

Directed by Martin Campbell, the man responsible for two recent successful Bond reboots, Foreigner introduces Ngoc Minh Quan, a middle-aged man who just loses his last relative—beloved daughter Fan (Katie Leung, Cho Chang from Harry Potter franchise). The girl is among twelve victims of a terrorist bombing enacted by Irish nationalists who call themselves “Authentic IRA.” This situation requires in its audiences a certain level of insight regarding the political turmoil in Northern Ireland and the scandalous Brexit, as well as recent disputes in Belfast.

The concept reminds us of Campbell’s 2010 thriller Edge of Darkness, starring Mel Gibson. A distraught father loses his daughter in a violent act. After brooding over mementos to cherish the tiniest trace of her presence, he walks through the mess of political powerplay and corporate influence to avenge his girl. He clashes with a third party—an individual brought in by the government officials—but deals soft-handedly with him after they seem hellbent on killing the other.

But unlike Gibson’s Craven, Quan doesn’t care for the political undercurrents. He’s also not your typical Chinese-British restaurateur: from doddering dad, he switches to killer mode. As the movie gradually reveals, his modesty and perseverance hide a tumultuous past involving his time as a black-ops soldier and a guilt-stricken father of three. Quan’s method is simplistic and focused, utilizing cash, patience, and the right amount of violence. To find the terrorists and avenge his daughter, this uncomplicated man hoards paper clips and his twenty thousand pounds to bribe, though unsuccessfully, Scotland Yard officer Richard Bromley (Ray Fearon) before reaching out to First Minister of Northern Ireland, Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). Names are what he is after.

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The legendary actor Chan, who received an overdue lifetime achievement Oscar last year for his trademark stuntwork and slapstick comedy, is so convincing in his turn as a laconic spirit of vengeance. While still packing a serious hit, he makes up for his lack of youthful strength—only when compared to younger opponents—with agility and firmness. Autumn of life hinders the action veteran from death-defying stuntwork, but his emotional chops move us the most in moments of Quan’s sadness. The mournful loner occupies his frames with unyielding concentration.

However, the movie mostly belongs to Brosnan. Our first impression at Hennessy is the twitchy left eye of an unnerved, shady politician. Audiences should appreciate Brosnan’s acceptable Irish accent and praise this conflicted character’s bursts of anger. Nobody wants to be Hennessy in this moment; he must deal with everyone's flak and work towards amnesty for his former IRA allies. (Mr. First Minister wasn't always respectable—but passionate and rebellious in his youth.) Hennessy has already faced a multitude of objectors—because he wants to appeal to both sides—before harassed by Quan's homemade bombs and non-lethal booby traps. He gets into strife with his underling Hugh McGrath (Dermot Crowley) while pressed by his superior, British minister Katherine Davies (Lia Williams). When Hennessy retreats to his safe house in a remote area, the plot tightens.

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Foreigner centers on Hennessy and, for a long time, forgets Quan, who is wallowing in flashbacks of guilt and helplessness. Politics has softened the man’s edge, and his allies spot that to exploit for their own agenda. Gradually, Hennessy sheds his diplomatic and honorable mask, shows his true intentions after waves of mistakes and Quan’s uncalculable intervention. His personal entanglement, already twisted, threatens to hinder and sabotage his professional life.

We’re talking about a handful of supporting characters—a convoluted chain of causality—but Campbell clears up this series of double-crosses via a consistently serious and committed cast. First, it doesn’t take Hennessy’s young mistress Maggie (Charlie Murphy) for his domestic life to go sour. In his hearth, Mrs. Hennessy (Orla Brady) only loves the fiery activist her husband once was, and this unsatisfactory wife threatens to do more harm than just bothering him. His nephew Sean Morrison (Rory Fleck Byrne), a decorated ex-serviceman living in New York, is called to assist Hennessy in dealing with the British police and tracking down Quan in the woods near the farmhouse. While members of the terrorist cell are carrying out their subsequent bombings, the police are reduced to plot devices until the end. And the screenplay plants a journalist named Ian Wood (Rufus Jones) from the first sequence and inserts him again for the climax.

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Viewers can get lost in a complicated network of crisscrossing characters while Quan lurks and operates on the seams of the movie's narrative, thus unaware of his role in this ploy. I admit his impact isn’t palpable at first sight, except for his bombs, but Quan's intervention strategically drives and re-directs plot progression. Putting immediate pressure on an already-jittery Hennessy is only one thing amongst them. Without Quan—meaning Mary would stay beside her husband and the nephew never showed up, Hennessy's plan could have turned out much more desirable.

Conspiracies and vengeful acts culminate in the final fight, where Quan goes all-out with kitchen utensils, a gun, and his acrobatics. Director Campbell cares for violence as much as for politics, staging clear and motivated fight scenes with Chan at the center. It's never hollow action because consequences always come right after. While David Tattersall’s camera is equal part moody and sharp, Cliff Martinez dishes out a temperamental electronic score for seething unease and swift action.