Derek Yee’s ‘Shinjuku Incident’ is a significant film in the career of superstar Jackie Chan as it is his first serious dramatic role in an awful long time (he gets laid in this movie too) though there were some flashes of drama in both ‘The Myth’ and ‘Rob-B-Hood’ but the slapstick was never too far behind in those movies where this one is a crime drama through and through. And ‘Shinjuku Incident’ was not a good crime drama but a great crime drama… at least about 75 percent of the way through the movie because near the end of the third act the film seemed to completely lose its way and became something else altogether.
The film chronicles events in history during the mid 1990’s when floods of Chinese refugees descended upon Japan in search of a better life. Jackie Chan plays the role of a hard working Chinese farmer with the odd name of Steelhead who seems more than content to work his land and love his lady Xiu Xiu (Jinglei Xu). Xiu Xiu longs for a better life which she believes Japan holds for her and with Steelhead’s full support she heads off to Japan to find this life, with the promise that once she achieves her goals she will return home. This does not happen. In fact when he stops hearing from her Steelhead risks all to head to Japan to search for her.
Eventually, amidst some trials and tribulation Steelhead makes it Tokyo where he finds shelter with a group from the old land including his good friend Jie (Daniel Wu). Steelhead works odd jobs as an exploited migrant worker, still searching for his lost lady and eventually he finds her. What he found was a woman with a Japanese name, a young daughter and a Yakuza boss husband and this woman was doing quite well for herself, thank you very much
Understandably distraught Steelhead has few options. Circumstances have occurred which will prevent him from returning home leading the man to commit himself to the only way an exploited immigrant seems to be able to get over in this strange land and
this would be to resort to a life of crime. A pathway to this life is cleared for Steelhead when, by circumstance again, he saves the life of the Yakuza boss Eguchi (Masaya Kato), the man who has married his old girlfriend, and in so has garnered favor with Eguchi leading Steelhead to perform some acts of a seriously questionable moral nature but opening a world of opportunity in the process.
Alas the old axiom holds true as the more money you have, the problems that come with this new wealth are exponential. Eguchi can’t be trusted, the Yakuza are not happy with the new power the Chinese have acquired, The Taiwanese gangs want revenge, good friend Jie has lost his mind due to some rather unfortunate external circumstances and there is the small issue of the police to deal with as well. Life was much simpler back home tending to the farm.
There were times while watching ‘Shinjuku Incident’ that the story was so good and was so well presented that I almost wanted to shed a joyful tear. Yee brings his tale along almost perfectly and at a pitch perfect tone. The way in which Mr. Chan’s character of Steelhead was developed from a lowly displaced migrant farm worker to a major criminal player was initiated in a way that was logical and believable. Obviously there are situations that happen within the course of the movie, or perhaps any movie for that matter, that rely heavily on coincidence and circumstance to keep the plot moving but these situations didn’t fall out the realm of the logical structure of the story. At least not at this point. The supporting characters were another strength of this film which includes Masaya Kato as the world’s flyest gangsta who exudes cool and a touch of menace through his three thousand dollar tailor made suits and Daniel Wu’s meek character of Jie who just wants to talk to a pretty girl and sell chestnuts, not to mention Bingbing Fan’s character of a hostess who befriends Steelhead, acts as an interpreter and confidant and eventually falls for Steelhead.
But as the movie was coming to its eventual conclusion it all kind of fell apart. Jackie Chan as a traditional leading man didn’t seem entirely comfortable with the direction that story seemed to have to go. The unsteadiness and lack of conviction in his character worked early on in the way the story was presented but when the mess hits the fan and it was time for this character of his to become something else, noting that certain aspects of humanity had to be sacrificed to achieve a particular level, Chan the actor didn’t commit to this. Having seen many a Jackie Chan movie this would’ve been completely different than what we were expecting from the actor, and for the most part he did deliver something completely different but I don’t think he went as far as was necessary to completely embody this character he was playing.
In addition the story itself also spirals out of control transforming from a narrative that was moving along in a logical, but still tense manner, but somehow devolved into this crazy, wildly over the top series of events which I think was supposed to illustrate how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in a way it does this, but it just seemed so out of place within the way the movie was currently flowing.
All that being said I still think that ‘Shinjuku Incident’ is a movie worth seeing because it was artistry in motion for most of its running time and featured some really good performances, and in some spots Jackie Chan’s performance was one of those, but unfortunately it just couldn’t maintain this high level of performance through the entire film.