Sunday, February 07, 2010

Gangs of Tokyo: The Shinjuku Incident

Jackie Chan is fifty-five years old. Not being as rubber-boned as he used to be, Chan is clearly looking to branch out from the stunt-oriented action films that propelled him to international fame. Take his latest comedy The Spy Next Door—please. Perhaps a better portent for Chan’s future film career can be seen in Derek Yee’s The Shinjuku Incident (trailer here), which unceremoniously appeared at the AMC Village 7 this weekend.

Shinjuku is a largely commercial Tokyo administrative district that happens to have the city’s greatest number of foreign residents. Evidently, many illegal Chinese immigrants were drawn to Shinjuku in the 1990’s looking for work. However, Nick (a.k.a. Steelhead) came for love rather than money, searching for his long-missing girlfriend, Xiu Xiu. Unfortunately, he finds her, married to a rising yakuza captain.

The broken-hearted Nick is in Japan to stay, having lost his Chinese identity papers in transit, so he tries to make the best of it. After first taking a number of the jobs the Japanese “just won’t do,” he starts to build his own criminal empire. What starts with stolen phone cards and rigged pachinko machines eventually attracts the yakuza’s violent attention.

Though Shinjuku has its share of fighting, its approach to the gangster film is rooted more in a Scorsese-like interest in criminal social structures and national identity than the Hardboiled shoot ’em-up tradition. It is very much a film about the hierarchy of organized crime, as well as the shifting loyalties and ethnic prejudices bubbling under the surface. Chan still gets in plenty of shots, but always in action sequences grounded in reality. Indeed, fans might be disappointed not to see Chan’s usual blooper reel of stunts gone awry during the closing credits.

Chan is not bad in a largely dramatic role, but he never has to stretch that far as the taciturn, square-jawed “Steelhead.” However, Naoto Takenaka hits all the right world-weary notes in a memorable supporting turn as the honest Inspector Kitano. Though under-utilized, Fan Bingbing is also a refreshingly charismatic presence as Nick’s new girlfriend Lily, the mama-san of an out-of-the-way gin joint.

Stylishly helmed by Yee, Shinjuku is successful more often than not in its attempts to combine a gritty street level perspective on organized crime with the grand tragedy of its protagonist’s rise and fall story. Granted, the heartstring pulling flashbacks are unsubtly manipulative and the metamorphosis of Nick’s innocent fellow villager Joe (a.k.a. Jie) into a bad Joker impersonation is just plain weird, but overall Shinjuku is a surprisingly absorbing crime melodrama. If you blink, you will probably miss Shinjuku’s limited theatrical window, but it is a decent gangster picture that should set the tone for Chan’s future action roles (but please, no more kiddie comedies). It is currently screening in New York at the AMC Loews Village 7.