The Foreigner (Campbell; 2017)

To say that Jackie Chan has a specific signature style is an understatement.  At age 63 now, though, he can’t do the death defying seemingly superhuman stunts he was once capable.  He is still in remarkable shape, but a lifetime of stretching your physical capabilities to the limit, punishing your body, and just simple age mean that he has to change the way he approaches his roles.  In The Foreigner he does just that, and while there are still quite a few action scenes Chan does nearly a 180 degree turn from his usual frantic, comic, action based performance and attempts something more serious and thoughtful.

An IRA bombing of a bank kills 58 people and injures 21 in the opening scene of The Foreigner, and among the dead is Fan (Katie Leung) the daughter of Jackie Chan’s Quan Ngoc Minh.  Since she was the last family Quan had left in the world, he is struck particularly hard and also is able to leave everything else in the world behind as he seeks justice and revenge.  His search leads him to Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan) a former member of the IRA who is now reformed and is a prominent Irish politician.  Quan is convinced Hennessey knows who performed the bombing and the remainder of the movie is a cat and mouse game between the two as Quan does whatever he feels is necessary to get the names from Hennessey, and Hennessey in return seeks to stop Quan in order to protect both his career and his family.

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The screenplay for The Foreigner is based on a book called “The Chinaman”.  I have never read the book, so I can’t give a comparison, but I can say the story of The Foreigner is an intelligent and intricate one, but the characters are so thin as to be more plot devices than actual people.   It makes for a somewhat irritating experience because you can truly get swept up in the story, and be honestly surprised as well as impressed by its thoughtfulness and realism, but despite that not a single character in the film has a single character trait beyond events that happen to them.  No one is funny, or gullible, or dour, instead they are a man who has lost his family, a mysterious politician, a nephew with military experience, a wife who doesn’t like her husband, and so on.  What this does is make for a film which can be appreciated, but not enjoyed as you never empathize with anyone on screen.  It’s hard to even say there are protagonists or antagonists in the film, let alone heroes and villains, just a bunch of people whose actions weave together to form a story.

That being said, it’s hard to say whether or not this turn of Jackie Chan’s is a good one.  He shows here that he is still capable of some fun action scenes, damn he is still in great shape, and that he can frown and squeeze out a tear here and there instead of constant smiling and laughter, but with no real personality traits to express we just get a Chan who is much more calm than we are used to rather than a true performance.   The same can be said of every performance in the film, though Chan’s is the only one most are paying close attention to since his is the only great departure from his usual style, there is nothing particularly wrong with the acting, it’s just that there is no character given to the actors to portray.

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The camerawork in The Foreigner never reaches artistic nor impressive levels, but is still very solidly pulled off.  The film has a lot of moving pieces which have to followed, and at no point does it ever become difficult for the audience to do so, though on a handful of occasions it does become a bit awkward to do so with some quick editing which is necessary but comes out of nowhere and could almost certainly have been handled in a better fashion.  Aside from those handful, and they really are rare which is probably why they are so jarring, we get a film that is easy enough to watch that you can forget you are watching things through someone else’s eye, and if you aren’t trying for a visual art piece, that is one of the best things to accomplish in a film’s cinematography.

The pacing of the film is on the slower side.  There is a lot of talk about the past, or about what people should do, or about plans, but there is very little direct action taken by the characters for the vast majority of the film.  This makes for a movie that seems far longer than it actually is, and while the realistic constant twisting of the story is enough to get you to stay until film’s end since you just have to know what’s really going on and you need that sense of closure, you will also find yourself wishing to yourself that they could just move things along already for quite a bit of the running time.

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Final verdict:  The Foreigner is a very mediocre film which also happens to have fantastic plotting.   If political thrillers or revenge stories are really your thing then I would say to give The Foreigner a look, thought not necessarily in the theater.  If characterization is important to you, though, expect to be disappointed, and if you are looking for an over-the-top hilarious action packed Jackie Chan flick then avoid The Foreigner at all costs, or at least seriously reconfigure your expectations to the near exact opposite.  The Foreigner had a lot of potential, but poor character writing kills it for this critic, making it difficult to sit through despite its wonderful story.

 

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Hughes; 2017)

Take two incredibly charismatic people, give them characters to play who don’t like each other for some reason, put them in danger, have them find a common bond through being forced to work together, and then happy ending.  It’s the most basic recipe in Hollywood writing history, and it’s what you are going to get in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

The plot is that the former ruler of Belarus (Gary Oldman) is on trial at the Hague for crimes against his people, but all of the witnesses being brought forward are being killed or have no definitive evidence.  Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former hitman currently serving time in a European prison who has some evidence on the former despot, but when Interpol agents try to get him to the trial the convoy is attacked.  With no other recourse, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, Electra from Netflix’s “Daredevil”) calls up her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) who works as a bodyguard to get him to the trial on time.

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The one saving grace in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the raw charisma of its two stars.  Casting Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in the two leads was partially an act of genius, in that it was probably the only move that could save this travesty of a script, and partially a tragedy, in that seeing these two do something that was actually good would be an amazing experience whereas here they were merely able to make the movie watchable.  In my review of Logan Lucky, I mention quickly the difference between movie stars and actors.  What we have with Jackson and Reynolds are two movie stars, as they are just being themselves for the most part (Reynolds is forced more often into the straight man role here, so while he isn’t really acting, he is restraining himself), but they are being themselves at their most entertaining and showing a true chemistry which amplifies the hilarity of their banter.

Past the stars charisma and chemistry, though, what we have is one hell of a mess.  First of all, the plotting is so by the book formulaic that there are no surprises to be had throughout the film.  To say The Hitman’s Bodyguard is predictable is practically an understatement.  The only questions asked while watching the movie is not if the next thing we see will be an overused action cliche’, but which exact cliche’ are they going to use next?

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Past the cliche’s we have the ludicrousness of the plot.  The hitman has to get to the Hague because all the other witnesses against Belarus’s former leader are being killed, so how does sending hordes of thugs with guns shooting up major population zones, blowing up speeding cars, and generally making a loud, deadly spectacle of themselves help the case of the defendant?  Wouldn’t someone on the prosecution make some sort of case that all the witnesses for the prosecution are very obviously being attacked by an army?  That’s only one of the more obvious logical problems in a plot filled with them just to give our heroes chances to give one liners while they shoot things and drive really fast.

The tone is also all over the place.  One scene will be practically Looney Tunes level comedy while others will give us actions which are downright disturbing.  Director Hughes seems more concerned with tone on an individual scene basis and doesn’t care how it will affect the flow of the film as a whole.  One scene will give us a gruesome mass murder including children while the next will give us violence more akin to what we’d see in Tom & Jerry as mellow 80’s music plays in the background.  It’s sloppy and distracting.

The action itself is hit or miss.  Some scenes will be well shot and exciting, while others make too much use of close up shaky camera work.  There is a boat chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam late in the film which, if you can throw logic out the window, is very well done and one of the few scenes which make The Hitman’s Bodyguard worth watching, but far too many action bits are shown with no attempt to ground our vision and the camera work’s intention is less to thrill us and more to hide the fact that Reynolds and Jackson aren’t really doing their own fight scenes.

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Finally, amidst the cliched themes of two opposites not really being opposites at all and becoming best of buddies by the end, a very interesting question is raised at one point in the film.  Jackson turns to Reynolds and asks him (I’m paraphrasing) “Which is more evil?  The man who kills the bad guys?  Or the man who protects them?”  It’s a really good question, and would be an excellent theme for this film to explore.  Unfortunately past that one line the question is never even touched upon again, serving only to frustrate with the knowledge that the writers did recognize that there could have been real depth to this story, but they decided to throw it out the window and give us brainless tripe instead.

Final verdict:  The power of personality is the only thing which elevates The Hitman’s Bodyguard to the level of mediocrity.  If you want to shut your brain off completely and just enjoy two very humorous men bantering and shooting things, then The Hitman’s Bodyguard will scratch that itch.  However, with this summer delivering us so many smart action movies and comedies, I can’t recommend even to those The Hitman’s Bodyguard unless you’ve also seen all the others first.   Never dull but always dumb, that’s how I’d describe this movie as succinctly as I can.