Shinjuku Incident isn't your regular Jackie Chan movie - no big acrobatic stunts, no comedy setpieces but instead a story-led drama that relies more on Jackie Chan's acting skills than it does on his athleticism. But although he's a much better dramatic actor than he's given credit for (as Crime Story showed) and this drama is definitely a big improvement on his recent turkeys without actually being a great film, it's not quite the great breakthrough it could have been. In some ways it's a fairly average but decently executed morality tale, with Chan's illegal immigrant going to Japan to find his long missing fiancé and taking on underpaid dirty jobs before discovering she's married a Yakuza boss and finding himself on the first rungs of a life of crime with various petty scams. One very convenient coincidence later and he's agreeing to kill in exchange for running the Shinjuku district and, as if that doesn't outrage the less than racially progressive old school Yakuza members enough, in a somewhat more unlikely plot development, trying to run the area without crime as a mutual help association. Unfortunately, while he's reluctant to commit to crime fulltime, his friends aren't, with inevitably tragic results...
While the Japanese location adds novelty, the story isn't exactly overburdened with originality, making it perhaps more interesting for Chan fans who get to see him do all the things the ever conscious of his role model status star refused to do onscreen for years: playing a villain, cold-bloodedly murdering people and even having a brief sex scene. It's inevitable that he'll see the error of his ways and pay the price (the film also makes a case against illegal immigration even if it is played as a 90s period piece), which may make the film seem somewhat soft and rather moralistic to Western audiences, but it's perhaps best seen as a transitional effort from a star who realises he is getting too old for the stunts that made his fame and needs to find character roles if he's to stay in front of the cameras as well as behind them. Sadly for much of the first half of the film he's a little too blank and anonymous, though there are moments that show what he's capable of - the scene where he's finally reunited with his fiancé is a remarkably expressive bit of underplaying - though it's in the second half that he finally seems to really find the character as the dramatic opportunities increase. Sadly the underplaying doesn't extend to Daniel Wu as an initially nervous friend whose attempts at an honest life go horribly wrong: while he's more restrained than usual for the first two thirds of the film he goes into his typical wild overacting mode when his character goes downhill at high speed. Much more impressive are Naoto Takenaka sympathetic Japanese cop, Masaya Kato's smooth Yakuza and Xu Jing Lei and Fan Bing Bing as the women in Chan's new life, while Lam Suet provides a familiar face for Hong Kong film fans as one of Chan's gang.
One Night in Mongkok director Derek Yee shows a much better grasp of his material here, throwing in some impressive visuals and a particularly striking opening sequence of immigrants huddled on a beach near a wrecked ship, while co-star Kar Lok Chin's fight choreography is deliberately realistically clumsy and brutish, with Chan convincingly hiding his martial arts training and avoiding big showcase stunts - the film's most memorable act of violence involves a machete and a hand. It's not a great film, but it is a good one: it's just best not too expect too much too soon from Chan's new direction.
The Hong Kong 2-disc release from Joy Sales isn't bad either. Though most of the extras (2 alternate scenes from a censored version, making of featurette and trailers) could have probably fit on one disc instead of two, they're all English-friendly, as is the film (though the English subtitles could be bigger). The UK DVD includes a decent selection of extras as well as a dubbed English soundtrack with Chan providing the voice for his own character for once.