Fresh from his painful buffoonery in The Spy Next Door, Jackie Chan tacks the opposite direction in this tough yet conventional Tokyo-set crime melodrama. Star as well as producer, he plays a destitute Chinese peasant called "Steelhead" who washes ashore with other unwanted boat people during Japan's booming '90s. These undocumented outcasts fill a vital role—cleaning sewers, etc.—but they're also squeezed by the yakuza and the cops, permanently relegated to the black-market economy. When it turns out that Steelhead's ex has married into the mob, he reluctantly agrees to become an assassin in order to secure a work permit and spread the wealth among his fellow immigrants. Chan, unwilling to muss his screen image too much, casts himself as a principled protector ("How can I take advantage of my own people?") who's betrayed by his greedy gang and feckless younger brother. It's a mostly reactive role, well suited to Chan's tired stoicism—or limited acting range, if you prefer. At 55, Chan wisely eschews elaborate stunts or choreographed fight scenes. The killing and the brawling between rival Japanese and Chinese gang factions are spasmodic and unruly; there's no glamour to this mobster's rise and fall. Despite its Hong Kong pedigree (veteran Derek Yee directs), Shinjuku Incident forgoes flashy action scenes in favor of old-fashioned moralism. It could have been made by Warner Bros. in the 1930s, and that's a compliment.
Chan takes aim.
Opens at Oak Tree and other theaters, Fri., Feb. 5. Rated R. 120 minutes.