We've been watching Jackie Chan blow our minds with amazing feats of martial arts prowess and death defying stunts all delivered at break neck speed, and through it all there was always a level of the absurd to cushion us from the reality of these situations. A Jackie Chan movie was always more a Bugs Bunny cartoon than Clint Eastwood life and death drama. In between all of the American releases, there surely must have been countless cop dramas overseas, but it wasn't what Chan was known for here in the states and make no mistake, he was probably reminded of this by many a Hollywood suit. Now comes The Shinjuku Incident, telling a very real story of what people will do to protect their friends and family and the depths they'll traverse just to survive.
Like all great epics, it is love that drives the man. "Steelhead" leads a simple life in China with dreams of starting a family with the woman he loves one day. She follows an opportunity to Japan, leaving Steelhead broken-hearted. After a time, and no word from his love, he too sets off for Japan and quickly finds himself unwelcome among the sprawling populace, seen as another immigrant beggar taking up space. Steelhead is smart and charismatic, so we watch him gather a group of fellow immigrants and, almost inadvertently, create a new gang and fortune of ill gotten gains. The story unfolds like an Asian Scarface, but without the malice. Steelhead really does have the best intentions, always keeping his new "family" safe and fed and always searching for his lost love when he can, but however you spin it, he is the head of a new crime outfit.
Before long, the established bosses take notice and try and drop the hammer on Steelhead's merry thieves. Now the blood and body parts begin to fly as we watch Steelhead's rise up the criminal ladder, all the while remembering what it cost him to get there. Jackie Chan's portrayal of this simple man who never wanted to be an underworld boss never ceases to be engaging. This level of intimacy with the character helps to grip the audience tightly, doing something you rarely see in a film. You actually care deeply for, what is essentially, the bad guy. Sure, you can argue he's the nicest of the bad guys, but there is no mistaking he has made choices that lead to people's deaths. We've watched Steelhead trying to utilize the resources available to someone living on the streets of Japan and see how easily success in a small criminal enterprise, even with good intentions, can lead to bloodshed. The once gentle man who only wanted a happy, simple life is now forced to consider that those around him might kill him if it serves their purposes. These are certainly themes we've seen in film before, but the execution is slick and extremely thoughtful with acting performances you'll remember. The result is a gritty crime drama that never apologizes for its characters and maintains multiple levels of storytelling without losing the audience. That is an accomplishment in itself.
Admittedly, I have probably only seen half a dozen Jackie Chan films, so it is only from my own limited perspective that I say The Shinjuku Incident may be the best film I've ever seen him in. It is certainly far superior to, say, Rumble in the Bronx and similar martial arts action bonanzas we've had in American theaters. It is also MILES better than the Rush Hour series! Unfortunately, the film only got a tiny theatrical release, which has now ended, so you'll have to wait until Summer to catch it on DVD. Keep an eye out! After The Shinjuku Incident, you may never look at Jackie Chan the same way again.