Title: Shinjuku Incident
Year of Release: 2009
Date Viewed: November 29th, 2010
MPAA Rating: R
Jackie Chan sends a message to his fans in the opening scene of Shinjuku Incident. A young woman is being stalked by a group of street thugs. Chan's character hears her cry for help. If this were the 1980s, he would have done what audiences expected of him. His character would rush to the aid of a victim in peril, like a superhero who sees the call signal. The evildoer will be subdued quickly and smoothly. The distressed victim will give thanks to her rescuer. If it's a female, a kiss on the cheek will be most likely included.
But this is the twenty-first century; an era where Chan is trying to leave behind his good samaritan image created from his famed Police Story series. The camera cuts over to Chan, who looks over his shoulder as soon as he hears the victim plea for mercy. Right on cue, he quickly selects a course of action.....running and hiding.
Chan has been surprising audiences all through his career. Usually those surprises come in the form of death-defying stunts and unpredictable action sequences. At the age of 56, Chan still has ways to keep his followers wondering what he will do next. In this case, it's an unexpected character trait. Someone who looks out for only himself.
A character like Steelhead (Chan) has no choice but to do just that to survive. Steelhead is one of many illegal Chinese immigrants earning a living in Japan. A true-to-life tale that may have difficulty finding audience appreciation. Especially since Chan's dependable Hong Kong revenue had to be sacrificed due to the graphic nature of some key scenes.
Steelhead's underground clique of illegal workers have one of their jobs compromised by the Japanese authorities. Steelhead narrowly escapes, but not before reluctantly saving the life of a detective, a rare deterrence from his normal "run and hide" lifestyle.
But as he would later learn, running and hiding does not always work. Especially if you're dealing with the Yakuza. A run-in with the brutal Mafia gang leaves many of his comrades crippled apart, if they're lucky enough to live. Steelhead is able to find conditional sanctuary from the gang by accepting a mission that will lead to an assassination. Further cover is given by the detective whose life was saved, now working to repay the debt. With enough power to keep both his immigrant and mafia comrades content, things fall apart when the two groups fall into deadly conflict. As events spiral out of control, Steelhead realizes, perhaps too late, that he is way over his head.
Whatever formula you may have calculated from watching Jackie Chan movies, be prepared to throw it all away. There are no elaborate fight scenes, no slapstick comedy and no outtake montage. This is pure drama at its grittiest. While it's not the first time Chan has dived into serious roles, this may be the first time he has set out to completely re-invent himself. Are his fans ready for it? The true ones ought to be by now. Chan doesn't just change because of the times. He does it for personal satisfaction.
Despite some very strong performances and some interesting twists, the story doesn't tear at the heartstrings the way it should. Dark material does not cover for the lack of character empathy. I'm not sure if cultural backdrops have anything to do with it since illegal immigration is certainly not exclusive to a single region.
In an interview included with the DVD extras, Chan expressed wishes to be remembered as a dramatic actor on the same level as the greats; ala Robert De Niro. Only time will tell if he can succeed. It's clear that his Drunken Master days are over. What remains to be seen is if the movies' quality can match the actor's efforts.
A challenge can be defined as this: Evolving yourself from a no-name stuntman to a comedic martial arts master and finishing as an icon of drama. Any person's odds of accomplishing all three are slim. But Chan has been overcoming odds all his life. What's to stop him now?