| A combination of immigrant drama and gangland thriller, Shinjuku Incident probably could not have been made without Jackie Chan. The action star's popularity makes him the film's key figure, and a great deal of audience want-to-see is likely due to his presence. Unfortunately, Chan's much-publicized against-type casting does not prove entirely successful. Jackie Chan isn't a bad actor, but his personality and screen persona are so well established - and his previous films so very dependent on them - that itís hard to see him as anyone other than the screen icon we know and love. He proves an odd fit in a dark dramatic thriller like Shinjuku Incident, his humanity and everyman likeability somehow making his character seem unconvincing. One wonders if a different lead actor might have served the film better.
Jackie Chan plays Steelhead, a Chinese farmer who illegally travels to Japan in search of his childhood sweetheart Xiu Xiu (Xu Jinglei). After dodging the cops, Steelhead settles into life as an illegal immigrant alongside pal Jie (Daniel Wu) and other immigrant Chinese. Xiu Xiu is still nowhere to be found, but Steelhead must also look out for his own daily existence. Life in Japan isnít easy; the Chinese work at odd jobs, but have to bolt every time the cops show up for an illegal worker raid. Luckily, Steelhead makes one friend on the opposite side; in one bust, he saves the life of police inspector Kitano (the always entertaining Naoto Takenaka). In return, Kitano helps Steelhead escape the cops and offers further assistance if he requires it.
However, even with a guardian angel on the police force, Steelhead embarks on a crooked path. His destiny is equal parts choice and necessity, as the Chinese must resort to crime to make a decent living. Director Derek Yee doesn't try to justify or excuse their actions, depicting the Chinese as regular, flawed people dealing with an unfavorable environment. Thereís an immediate interest and sympathy arising from Yeeís depiction of the illegal immigrants' life. The Chinese struggle against the cops and the gangsters and don't become criminals without some consideration. Steelhead elects for the darker path in order to survive, but he also stresses that there are limits to what's justifiable.
As written, Steelhead should be the movie's most compelling character. However, Chan doesn't convey Steelhead's inner life very well. He tones down his propensity for overacting (this may be the first movie ever where Jackie Chan does not overact his anger), but his character's multiple layers don't shine through. Steelhead is both a good and a bad guy, but when he really does dark things, the effect is not a felt one. Even a last act revelation about Steelhead's past doesn't add the complexity that it should, because Steelhead still seems like a pretty nice guy even when he's doing bad things like shooting people. Jackie Chan is a genial, larger than life figure and at this point it's hard to see him otherwise.
On the other hand, Daniel Wu or Derek Yee fans should be okay with Shinjuku Incident. Daniel Wu doesn't have exceptional range, but he works that range impressively, switching between strong, weak, good and bad with ease. His character is the film's "dope", with his weakness, cowardice, or just plain bad luck causing many of the film's darker turns. There's also fan service; Wu bares his backside early on (alongside Jackie Chan's naked butt...uh, yay), plus his character eventually transforms into a high-strung visual kei glam rocker-type complete with eyeliner and wacky silver wig. Wu's performance is not particularly subtle, and he's a difficult sell as a Mainlander. However, the territory that his performance covers is entertaining, and he provides many of the film's most felt and also most violent moments.
Like Protégé before it, Derek Yee goes for the occasional violent shock, sometimes jolting the film into affecting the audience. The sequences help the film along, upping the stakes while also reminding us that the characters' choices come with a price. The film grows more violent as it progresses; each action begets a reaction, with the characters getting drawn deeper into the underworld seemingly against their will. However, once they're in, they're really in. As the film is quick to point out, power corrupts. Ultimately, people turn to the dark side and have to pay their dues. Cue mega-mega unhappy ending.
Shinjuku Incident works best when itís not driven by plot. As seen in Cíest La Vie, Mon Cheri and 2 Young, Yee excels at telling stories about unprivileged individuals, and makes their mundane everyday lives remarkably involving. Shinjuku Incident serves up characters and situations that rise above the standard genre story, exploring issues and ideas that are unglamorous but also affecting. Yee has a knack for making his characters greater than their basic types, with their circumstances tangibly felt and not just explained through backstory or exposition. His characters are not necessarily likeable or righteous people, but given their difficult circumstances and human responses, they feel real and sympathetic.
The supporting actors help greatly; Yee uses an assortment of veteran actors (Jack Kao, Paul Chun, Lam Suet, Chin Kar-Lok) and newer stars (Fan Bing-Bing, Xu Jinglei), and each makes the most of their roles. The women are especially good, considering that both could have easily been flower vases. As Steelhead's long-lost love, Xu Jinglei has to communicate mostly through facial expressions and restrained emotions. Fan Bing-Bing gets the meatier role, with her character Lily serving partially as Steelhead's moral compass.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't prove consistent. Steelhead makes certain choices that don't entirely convince. This is partly due to Jackie Chan's performance, but also due to the narrative's imbalance between immigrant drama and full-on gangland tale. Compounding matters is the last quarter of the film, which jumps ahead in time to a point where everyone has changed, resulting in a violent, action-packed conclusion that's entertaining but not as emotionally involving as it could have been. The characters struggle with discrimination, cultural differences, greed, corruption - but when the dust clears, the outcome is only expected and not that compelling. There's meaty material covered in Shinjuku Incident, but there's so much of it to process that when the film resorts to genre conventions, it buries all the subtle, thought-provoking content.
Furthermore, the film ends with pretentious onscreen statistics concerning the plight of illegal Chinese immigrants in Japan. Those details are certainly relevant, but since the ending leans more towards genre, the message gets a little lost. Shinjuku Incident feels less like an illegal immigrant drama than it does an all-star gangster thriller featuring a serious performance from Jackie Chan. Perhaps the film would have been better served with an actor like Lau Ching-Wan or Francis Ng in the lead role - basically, a guy whose presence wouldn't have overshadowed the proceedings. Even though Jackie Chan is trying to stretch and even though he's playing just a regular guy, he's still the top dog in every scene.
As an exploration of larger themes, Shinjuku Incident proves a bit unfocused, but it's not without an ability to affect. The film touches upon complex ideas and issues, and even if it can't tackle all of them satisfyingly, it still supplies enough for an involving and even harrowing two hours. Shinjuku Incident works best as a commercial film, proving entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking, and is only hampered when it attempts to be something greater. Similarly, Jackie Chan is an effective lead, but his reach here exceeds his grasp. In the end, both the film and its lead actor are not as good as they want to be - but they both try very hard.
(Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, 2009)