Don't make Appellate Judge Mac McEntire kick you in the Shinjukus.
"No one can live in the shadows forever."
After a run of family-friendly Hollywood flicks, international action superstar Jackie Chan (Rumble in the Bronx) returned to China in 2009 for Shinjuku Incident. Dark, bleak, and cruelly violent, it's a far cry from stuff like The Spy Next Door.
Nick Steelhead (Chan) is an illegal Chinese immigrant in Japan, hoping to find his long-lost fiancé, who emigrated there years earlier. Meeting up with relatives, Steelhead works menial labor while avoiding the cops. After the reunion with his lady love does not go well, he decides it's time to move on. He enters a life of crime, growing in both wealth and reputation. His success eventually gains the notice of the local Yakuza, leading to a full-blown organized crime turf war.
If you're going into this one hoping for another Drunken Master or Rush Hour or, heck, even Police Story, you'll be disappointed. This is a harsh and grim crime drama that happens to star Jackie Chan, with little to no elements usually associated with Jackie Chan movies. There's fighting, but it's mostly guys pushing and clawing at each other in a desperate attempt to survive, and not about who has the more masterful kung fu. There are a few stunts, but these are all about capturing the harsh brutality of the gangster life, and not about wowing the audience. More to the point, the action and fights happen in short bursts. They're here to move the plot along, rather than carry the entire film.
The first half of the movie is some gripping drama, with an emphasis on the illegal immigrants and their struggles. In the U.S., where I live, this is a hot-button issue, and seeing it interpreted from an overseas perspective was very interesting, as I consistently noted both cultural similarities and differences. When Steelhead finally learns what's become of his fiancé, it's a shocker of a moment, and their sidewalk reunion really is heartbreaking. It's also during this stretch of the film that we meet Steelhead's relative Jie (Daniel Wu), a nice guy who has the worst luck. As much Jie wants to go legit and start his own business, however small, he just can't stay out of trouble, and he ends up being put through hell by those vicious Yakuza guys.
In the movie's second hour, the story unravels somewhat. When Steelhead gets deeper and deeper into the Yakuza world, we get introduced to a flood of new characters, as well as their many motivations and rivalries with each other. All these characters are stock gangster/mafia types seen in so many of these kinds of movies, and they're not as interesting as the ragtag group of immigrants from earlier. Huge stretches of movie go by without Steelhead's presence as we follow the new characters, and it feels like I switched the channel and came into the middle of another movie. Then Jie reenters the story for some random weirdness. He shows up dressed in a full-on glam rock outfit, apparently to show how far he's gone off the deep end. At first, I didn't realize it was him, as I was thinking, "What's the bastard love child of David Bowie and Hedwig doing in this movie?"
So Jackie Chan isn't punching and kicking, he's acting. How is he? Pretty good, actually. He drops his usual "nice guy" persona completely, and instead portrays a miserable guy who has hit rock bottom. All the script does is ask him to be morose, and that's what he does. He does it well, though, so why not? (Side note: Is it horribly ethnocentric of me to wonder whether "Nick Steelhead" is an authentic Chinese name? Maybe it's a translation thing.)
The DVD features an excellent 2.35:1 widescreen picture, which nicely shows off the wide variety of colors and settings in the movie. The 5.1 sound, in an English dub and the original Chinese, are both clean and clear, but don't seem to use the rear speakers as much as they could. For extras, the DVD includes an interview and scene-specific commentary from Chan, in which he emphasizes his desire to take on a serious dramatic role.
Do I recommend this movie or not? Honestly, I'm torn. It has some fascinating ideas and interesting characters at times, but then it wallows in overdone gangster movie clichés at other times. It's bleak and mean-spirited, which is a departure from most of Jackie's films, but that might appeal to folks who want their movies dark and gritty. I guess I'll fall back on the "personal tastes" argument. If underworld crime flicks are your thing, seek this one out. If you want funny, over-the-top Jackie Chan, I recommend either Meals on Wheels (for old school Jackie) or Shanghai Knights (for Hollywood Jackie).
Not what we expect from Jackie Chan, but not guilty, either.
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