Director: Takeshi Kitano.
Starring. Takeshi Kitano,Omar Epps,Claude Maki,Tetsuya Watari USA/Japan/France/UK. 1h 44m.
I’ll start my review by saying that I adore everything about this quirky film, even the bad bits, so buckle up for a fangirl review of what is commonly thought of as a bad movie.
It’s never easy when a foreign director attempts to break into different cinematic style, for me John Woo totally struggled with his western movies, Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t get much applause for Alien Resurrection but was made a god for any of his French movies, (it goes both ways) and Kitano seemed to have been lost in translation while still maintaining his signature cool style, and I think he made a wise choice in starring in the movie to try and hold on to whatever he could from his previous great titles. One of Kitano’s strong facets is that you can kinda link his character throughout his movies, growing and becoming tougher and cooler each time, if you thought he reached his peak, you’ll be mistaken he’ll level up forever.
Yamamoto (Kitano) is a brutal experienced Yakuza enforcer who’s boss is killed when the clan is defeated in the latest war with rival family, the surviving members have limited options, most involve shame or death by seppuku, Yamamoto manages to escape to Los Angeles with an old gym bag of money and a passport, everything left after his luxury life of crime, instructed to keep a low profile, he intents to live with his estranged brother Ken (Maki). Yamamoto had been paying for his brothers education but it seems he ditched that plan and is now dealing drugs with his multicultural small time gang with Denny (Epps) who becomes Yamamoto first victim when he cuts him with a bottle in their first meeting, then cheats him with a dice game, but they forge a really strong friendship and brotherly bond as Yamamoto moves into this criminal instincts and moves the gang to the top of the food chain by taking over LA, taking out one gang after the other then they take on the Mafia head on.
There’s a continual atmosphere which is very laid back like a cool jazz throughout the film, much how Kitano usually saunters throughout his movies, often thinking about something, not seemingly quite present, until bang, he’s shooting someone or cracking heads, and then with a wry smile he’s on the move again. And in all fairness, everything from classics such as Violent Cop are all present here, but it seems something was confused in translation, there’s no question it’s a Kitano movie but it won’t be remembered as one of his best, but in the big scheme of things, it’s still a damned fine movie.
The main group of misfits, a couple of African American, Latinx, and the Japanese brothers aren’t the usual suspects when you think of a group of gang bosses, that have any chance to move up in the world, Kitano is the seasoned boss and has to regularly help out the youngster, eventually he’s joined by his previous Lieutenant Kato, (Shigeta) and the pair develop really strong bonds and edge a lot of honourable Yakuza beliefs of self-sacrifice honour and legendary self-mutilation into the gangs ethos. It’s also quite crazy how neither really speak much English either but get along OK. There’s a brilliant scene when Ken is beaten up but a local Latinx gang and Yamamoto, often referred to as Aniki (Elder Brother) just heads out and goes straight for the leader of the gang, wiping them out with a few shots and tells Ken, it’s now our territories’ so cool and fearless. Later on he has to school Ken on how to get the upper hand in a meeting with crime bosses, the scope out the proposed meeting place and hide weapons, as Ken is working as a translator to Aniki he has to shout unconvincing threats to the American gang but when he leaves to retrieve the weapons he can’t get to them but Aniki has a clever trick up his sleeves. On top of the cunning there’s lots of straight up torture and gun violence, despite it’s slow pace it’s quite a sadistic and bloody movie.
Are You Japanese?
Kitano was originally inspired by the love of Samurai movies by the western audience and wanted to deliver something more familiar for them, so he moved the samurai to America in order to show how this foreign thinker could fit into the mean streets of LA, however while given carte blanche, he noted how American productions are more focused on the business side of things and not so much the cerebral aspect and leaving this aside may have let the movie down in the long run and a lot of the original scenes were censored for the US release and left the editing looking “off”. What was supposed to be a gateway into the American cinema turned out to be one of the more disappointing movies. There’s still a strong gangster feel, through rivalry, greed, bloody eliminations and a massive boost in business, but the development of the narrative and characters is laboured. The visual impact is skewed, as if Kitano didn’t know what to focus on in an alien landscape.
“Mo: What are you guys gonna do?
Ken: Cut his finger off.
Mo: What happens when you cut his finger off?
Kato: Ummm… he can’t swim straight anymore.”
While it’s often frowned upon by die hard fans, I do suggest that if you are new to Kitano, then it would be ideal to start with this, it has his charm running rampart through it and when you progress to his other dynamic films things will only get better for you. For those who pan it because it’s not like one of his more vibrant Japanese films, just consider how it interprets Japanese gang life and shows Kitanos versatility. I love kicking back, having a laugh, enjoying the violence with my guilty little pleasure.
Related – Outrage (2010), Violent Cop (1989),
Lists – A-Z Japanese Cinema, Yakuza Cinema Vol 1
Spotlight – Beat Takeshi Kitano, Susumu Terajima, James Shigeta