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BROTHER (director/writer/editor: Takeshi Kitano; cinematographer: Katsumi Yanagijima; music: Joe Hisaishi; cast: Tatyana Ali (Latifa), Lombardo Boyar (Mo), Omar Epps (Denny), Ryo Ishibashi (Ishihara), Masaya Kato (Shirase), Claude Maki (Ken), Joy Nakagawa (Marina), Ren Oshsugi (Harada), James Shigeta (Sugimoto), Beat Takeshi (Yamamoto, Aniki), Susumu Terajima (Kato), Royale Watkins (Jay); Runtime: 107; Sony Pictures Classics; 2000-Jap)
“It fails to work because it falls into the conventional exploitive genre of Hollywood action films instead of retaining the quirky director’s unusual artistic sensibilities.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A Beat Kitano (Sonatine/Fireworks) gangster film set in L. A. and in English. It fails to work because it falls into the conventional exploitative genre of Hollywood action films instead of retaining the quirky director’s unusual artistic sensibilities. Beat wrote, directed, edited, and starred in this venture. Almost nothing worked in this mindless violent film that is filled with blood and gore, and not one character is worth sympathizing with. Though a few sketches have some odd comedy to them, as do the choreographed shootings. But this one is strictly for Beat Kitano fans, or for those who picture they are seeing Clint Eastwood, Paul Muni, and Buster Keaton all rolled into Beat’s sleepy performance, as he glides from heroic icon to a sad-eyed comic without missing a beat. He invites mayhem to occur in almost every scene he’s in, and that’s the film’s joke and reason for being.

Beat plays a laid-back yakuza assassin, Yamamoto, who goes by the nickname of Aniki–which means brother in Japanese. When his Tokyo gang gets into a conflict with another gang because they killed his boss and his gang is taken over by them, he becomes a marked man because he’s an unpredictable outsider. But those remaining friendly with him give him a new identity, bluff his death, and in his yakuza forced-retirement he heads to see his younger half-brother Ken (Claude Maki) in Los Angeles. He is a small-time drug dealer after dropping out of college and is hanging out with a black gang (Denny (Omar Epps), Jay (Royale Watkins), and Mo (Lombardo Moyar).

In L.A. Beat is hustled by a black con-artist played by Omar Epps, but instead of being compliant Beat violently erupts and injures his eye with a broken wine bottle. It turns out that Omar is part of the gang his brother belongs to, and the two will form what goes for a tender and comical relationship that plays out as the heart of the film. The only trouble is that both characters are so despicable that the touching scenes between them had little emotional impact. Also, Beat has trouble with his English and therefore remains mute for most of the film. Omar plays most of the time to the camera and his scenes had a phony look — especially, the badly conceived film ending.

It’s a clich√©-ridden film about loyalty, honor, and brotherhood being the most important traits to have for these immoral creatures. Beat will wipe out a Mexican drug gang his brother is dealing with because they are scum and if he doesn’t get them they will get him. He will go to war with the Little Tokyo yakuza organization after they refuse his partnership offer, and he will run into the ultimate death predicament when he has no choice but to take on the powerfully entrenched Mafia who are forcing his gang into an unfair partnership.

Killings are shown in both Tokyo and Los Angeles, but Tokyo is where Beat seems closer to the way he enjoys doing his killings. It seems that being a yakuza there gives him a greater spiritual connection with his culture.

None of Beat’s strategies to ward off the American gangs seemed anything but violently entertaining: fingers get chopped off, mob hits get made at the drop of a hat, and all the characters seemed cartoonish. The veteran gangster takes his newly found American inept lowlife friends into his bosom and makes them into a first-class gang, as they are awed by his flare for violence and cunning skill in disposing of other gang members. Of course, there’s a limit to what he can do, as taking on the Mafia is seen as too much for even him at this time. Anyway he prefers going out in gangster style as Paul Muni did in Scarface, living true to his yakuza brotherhood creed he tried to transport to America.

This film may encompass many of the existential themes and death wishes Beat professes to in his other films, but this film is just not as good. There’s an element of phoniness that creeps in that blocks it from smashing through on the American scene. The film seemed reactionary and had a perfunctory look, as it tried too hard to be hip when it just never could be. The shootings seemed not only unreal but began to feel just ugly, as the body count kept climbing and the lackluster story never amounted to anything worth tuning into. The thing here was to watch the dead-pan Beat execute a foe, as he looked bored by it all except for an occasional smile expressing his amusement at all this gang warfare. This film is an international attempt to gather a new audience for the auteur, as the hope is that they will discover how comical violence can be and they will relish watching him be the lone gangster warrior taking on the world. That’s a theme that will remind an American audience of some of its more violent westerns, and perhaps its more recognizable action heroes. What this film reminded me of most, was that a bad film by a good director is still a bad film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”