"Shinjuku Incident" first popped on my radar last summer when I heard of Jackie Chan's first non-traditional acting role alongside Ken Watanabe. In all honesty, Watanabe's involvement was more of a draw than Chan, who I've always found to be a likable presence, but a merely so-so actor. The movie never made it my way and up until it showing up here on DVD, I had completely forgotten about it. Apparently, during the time in-between, Ken Watanabe left the project and Chan was left to shoulder the weight of the film. The result is an unsurprising, but still disappointing effort.
Chan steps into the shoes of Chinese immigrant, Nick Steelhead (this last name only shows up on the back of the DVD case; he is merely referred to as Nick in the film), who finds himself illegally living in Japan, unable to return to his homeland for reasons that the movie drags its feet to fully explain until 30-minutes in. Along with fellow immigrants, including a somewhat naïve friend, Joe (Daniel Wu), Nick bounces from one menial day labor job to the next. Along the way, he quickly learns about the influence of the Yakuza and the placement of select foreign groups in their criminal enterprises. Unfortunately, "Shinjuku Incident" takes such a leisurely pace of getting the heart (or so were led to believe) of the film rolling, that to fully reveal how and why Nick ends going from day laborer to a key player in the Yakuza would spoil 60% of the film. The important point is how slow and ultimately pointless a lot of the movie ends up being.
Writer/director Derek Yee treads familiar ground here with common themes and events that pop in almost every Yakuza film I've seen. The interesting aspect and the one Chan himself seems to have been most drawn to (according to his own comments) was the treatment of illegal immigrants in a foreign country and how they get pulled into crime. From a Western perspective, this is nothing shocking and the film's portrayal of events seems rather tame, especially when placed next to an American series like "The Shield." Yee's direction only distances itself from middle of the road, made for TV quality by throwing in some out of place, flashy camera shots, over-the-top violence (because brutal violence always means seriousness), and even a brief sex scene (that ends up awkwardly dissolving to a quiet flashback) with Chan to drive home the idea that Jackie Chan is serious! To Yee's credit, he crafts a film that does look good and when it works, it's gripping, but too often, is never able to pace itself properly.
The film takes a handful of tonal and plot shifts, even in the final moments of the film. Sometimes these shifts are merciful, breaking a cycle of plot development that is just plain dull. However, when viewers are rewarded with a gripping change of events, the resolution is rarely satisfying and sometimes begins another cycle of "blah." Jackie Chan adds nothing to the mix as a lead actor; his performance is nothing special and arguably the weakest in the entire film. His attempts at emotion are overplayed and draw attention to the more melodramatic aspects of the script. He definitely succeeds at proving he can act seriously, seriously average. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Naoto Takenaka, as a detective who owes Nick big time and Bingbing Fan, as Nick's girlfriend are quite impressive in their all too limited respective roles. The latter perfectly summarizes the problems with Chan's character: he's a petty jerk, however, we are supposed to feel sympathetic for him. At the end of the day, Nick is a sloppily written character that makes me wonder if Chan was still reluctant to play a full-blown bad guy.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent during interior scenes and some urban exteriors. Detail is strong as are contrast levels, while the color palette accurately reproduces the more rural scenes from the beginning of the film, as well as the more outlandish colors worn by a street gang later on in the film. Exterior shots on location though, look a tad softer and show a bit more digital noise than urban settings (save for some odd looking shots in the film's final act), making the transfer, ultimately inconsistent.
The Dolby 5.1 Chinese and Japanese audio track is serviceable, but rarely full of life. When it does pick up in the finale as well as a noisy low-rider rally (don't ask), it, like the film itself shows squandered potential. It is however, distortion free and dialogue is properly mixed with score and effects. Instead, it feels like a really solid stereo track. An English 5.1 dub is included as well as English subtitles specifically for the original language track, English subtitles for the hearing impaired, and English and French subtitles for what I assume is the dub.
The bonus department is spare, consisting of commentary by Jackie Chan on eight minutes of selected scenes. Chan is very enthusiastic and very adamant about stressing that the movie was intended to highlight the exploitation of illegal immigrants. Its nice to see Chan's heart was in the right place when making the film, but it still doesn't excuse him biting off more than he could chew. The other extra is a ten-minute, promotional featurette titled "Say Hello to the Bad Guy." It focuses on Chan's involvement in the film and only further drives home the feeling that this was stunt casting.
"Shinjuku Incident" isn't a bomb, it's just painfully average. Nothing truly new or outstanding is brought to the table and the few shining moments are nearly lost under what is one of Jackie Chan's biggest failed stunts, drama. Sony releases a technically sound DVD, although the few extras end up being a tease for more. It's quite telling, that Jackie Chan talking about the making of this movie is more compelling than Jackie Chan acting in this movie. Rent It.