Jackie Chan has been making forays into more dramatic acting in the last few years — there were early attempts like Crime Story and Thunderbolt, and in the last few years we’ve had New Police Story and The Myth as well. But these have still been identifiably Jackie Chan movies — grueling stunts, inventive high-impact fight choreography, Jackie front-and-centre as the hero.
I didn’t think it very likely that we’d get one of those from director Derek Yee, though. Following on from well-received Hong Kong underworld films One Nite in Mongkok and Protege, The Shinjuku Incident is a solidly made, darkly serious film about illegal Chinese immigrants working in Tokyo, tangled up in a war between Yakuza. I really liked One Nite — Yee got an excellent performance from Daniel Wu there, and I was hopeful that he’d be able to work the same magic with Jackie.
For the most part, he does. Jackie plays Steelhead, a serious hardworking Chinese man who follows his childhood sweetheart to Japan after her family lose contact with her. There, he works as an illegal, picking up small jobs here and there and living with a group of his compatriots under the radar. There he befriends a police inspector (Naoto Takanaka) and a hostess club operator (Fan Bing Bing), but also encounters the Yakuza, most painfully when he recognises his sweetheart as the wife of one of the local mob bosses.
Steelhead is quickly drawn into the world of the Yakuza, and here we’re presented with a different character than any we’ve seen before from Jackie Chan. Steelhead is tough, but he also comes across as beaten-down and overwhelmed, his desire to find his sweetheart swamped by the difficulty of life as an illegal before it’s torn down altogether. It’s a gutsy role for him to take — not a lot of room for his traditional levity, with a few rather cold-blooded scenes of violence and even a love scene, all fairly new ground for Chan.
There are good performances from the rest of the cast, too. Daniel Wu deals with a series of somewhat odd haircuts and has a great deal of pain inflicted upon him as Steelhead’s pal Jie, though that’s about all he’s given to do — he had a much meatier role in One Nite in Mongkok. Naoto Takanaka does a good job as detective Kitano, managing to inject a bit of warmth into each scene he’s in. There’s a host of other familiar Hong Kong faces in the background as well; notably Lam Suet and Chin Kar Lok, who seem to be turning up in just about everything out of HK these days.
All in all, The Shinjuku Incident is a dark, neon-soaked drama which possibly has a higher profile than it otherwise would because of its star. Jackie Chan doesn’t really surprise here, but he does move further out of his comfort zone than I’d expected: this is by far the least family-friendly film he’s been in, and it’s great to see him trying new things. I’d much rather see another film like this than, say, another Medallion or Myth, and I think he should definitely be working with writer/directors like Derek Yee to do it.