Jackie Chan has a very direct style to comedy. The laughs in a typical Chan film, pre-Hollywood, come from the inappropriate use of impromptu weaponry on feckless enemies or through something akin to punching someone through graceful stumbling, an cunningly clumsy style of fighting personified in the classic 1978 Hong Kong action comedy, Drunken Master.
Falling over and kicking ass have been standard Chan fare since breaking free of Brucepolitation-style films (martial arts flicks that imitate or outright copy the style, feel, and look of Bruce Lee’s works). After 30 years of breaking bones, Chan has adapted the cunning fall into a veritable martial art form.
When Hollywood beckoned, studio execs managed to add another facet to the comedic oeuvre – the miscommunication. Beginning with the mildly enjoyable Rush Hour opposite Chris Tucker, Chan’s international presence has been marked with embarrassment. Although most of his Hong Kong body of work had some comedic elements sporadically mixed in, they weren’t ‘ha-ha’ funny but something you could chuckle along to in a quiet, satisfactory sort of way.
In various unwise moves, a series of Hollywood movies turned Chan into an outright physical-comedy actor. He still does some pretty nifty acrobatics but the laughs come cheaply. (The Spy Next Door is an especially illustrative example: how do we make action stars more lovable? Throw in some children!)
Having gone from action icon to parody, his films had become more Jackie Chan than he could ever be. His signature style of falling over and kicking ass had been fulfilled to its logical extreme in Hollywood – all he could seem to do in any Hollywood film was just that. There was no chance for drama, friendship, romance, or betrayal. It’s hard to see how fulfilling that could be for any actor. His star in Hong Kong waned further, which by 2009 had already waned in favor of younger blood, when he made some mistimed comments that seemingly suggested that he was, at heart, anti-democratic.
Clearly, it was time for a different tact. A man his age can’t go tumbling on screen forever; bones can only break so many times. Shinjuku Incident is an attempt to reclaim a sense of dignity in Chan’s international career and smooth over the ruffled feathers of a now-cautious Hong Kong audience. In many respects, it succeeds. This is Chan’s most difficult performance in years, physically grueling for men half his age and what can I say? It’s not terrible.
Jackie Chan clearly wants to play more serious characters if only to prolong his acting career. It’s intriguing to imagine Chan actively and consciously being serious, especially after a career built on sillier roles. He hardly cracks a smile and even has a sex scene (which, for Chan, is groundbreaking). As befitting a role as an illegal migrant laborer, Steelhead, to Japan, Chan wears an appropriately dour expression thus proving, once and for all, that he can pull ‘sad’.
The plot has been likened to a Chinese Scarface and follows a similar trajectory with a poor migrant getting caught up in a foreign underworld. It’s nothing fancy but still well-executed. Director Derek Yee’s films have shown a complex (and surprisingly complete) understanding of the day-to-day mechanics of the Hong Kong underworld. The film One Night in Mongkok, subsequently, feels jarringly real, an attribute that carries over into the Japanese underworld of Shinjuku.
Steelhead’s travails bring him into conflict, invariably, with the local yakuza. Fighting follows with some brutally gruesome reprisals. (So gruesome, in fact, that Yee opted not to even attempt to release the film in China, much to the chagrin of his investors but, hey!, props to his artistic integrity.)
The highlight of any Jackie Chan has to be its signature fights. For viewers expecting the tightly-sequenced, intricate choreography, and improbable acrobatics of earlier Chan films, there could be disappointment. This is not to say that Yee does not deliver: the film’s action set pieces are just of a different caliber. They may feel more graceless and sloppy when compared to the virtual ballet-fights of Drunken Master but that’s not really the point. The fights end up looking chaotic because fights are. It’s real tooth and nail stuff and we’re never really given the safe expectation that Steelhead will come out on top.
In other words, unlike other Jackie Chan fight scenes, there is real danger. As a migrant worker, he is not expected to fight well in any capacity but he gets by with his wits, luck, and willingness to treat anything as a weapon. It’s not a particularly glamorous fighting style but is incredibly effective.
Despite his willingness, Chan still only manages to barely acquit himself in the role. Steelhead isn’t as nuanced as the audience would like but still, sadly, beyond the theatrical mastery of Chan. Some of the demands of the script are completely alien to the Jackie-Chan-role: sadness, loss, and longing? What insanity is this?
The rest of the cast are just about adequate. Takenaka Naoto is rather bland but so is the Japanese inspector he plays. Daniel Wu, usually tremendously fun to watch, is particularly wasted as Jie, a target of wrath and unfortunate wretch. Ostensible love interest Xiu Xiu, played by Xu Jinglei, is a strangely anonymous MacGuffin. The strength of Yee’s films had always been its realistic portrayals of the dirty-glamour of the underworld types but some polish is always necessary.
Shinjuku can hardly be called a triumph. It’s entertaining enough but what began with so much promise really deserved a lot more payout. Chan’s move back to Hong Kong is a logical one, away from the God-awful of Hollywood and picking this film is a logical choice. Freed from being the butt of jokes and playing a caricature of himself, he at least retains his dignity and can begin to make acting amends for some of his more recent cinematic sins.
Yet when the film needed him the most, Chan himself falls short, oscillating as he does between glum and sad. It is an unpromising start to a new dramatic career but one in which, for nostalgia’s sake, this reviewer hopes ends up with a happier ending.