Movie Review - Culture clash

Takeshi merges the art of American gangster movies with Japanese yakuza films in Brother

There really may be something to this karma thing after all. In movies at least, if not in life, the better you give, the better you get. America gave the Italians the Western, they gave us Sergio Leone. We sent Jerry Lewis to the French, they took him (what's French for "suckers"?). Hollywood gave the world the gangster movie, and lo, we got Beat Takeshi.

True, Kitano "Beat" Takeshi is hardly the first Japanese director to tackle the gangster theme. Yakuza movies have a long tradition in Japan, and since the yakuza criminal clans date back to the good ol' days of samurais and swordplay, the films themselves span a prodigious time-span. Like the American gangster film, the Japanese genre has its trademarks and signposts; its rough and rolling style of speech, its tattooed tough guys and savage rites (erring yakuza cut off a finger to show contrition). But Beat has almost reinvented the genre in the last decade, and his latest picture is something quite revolutionary for Beat, for Japan and for the gangster movie gone global.

In Brother, Takeshi wrote, produced, directed and stars as Aniki, a deadpan yakuza heavy forced to flee to the States after a turf war in Japan. He quickly puts a lifetime of employment experience to work, whipping his Japanese-American half-brother and his posse of nickel-and-dime street dealers into a lethal force in the L.A. underworld, which starts to look pretty thinly populated by the end. With the help of an African-American hustler (Omar Epps), a psychotically violent Little Tokyo thug, and a devoted lieutenant fresh off the boat from Japan, (played by Susumo Terajima, one of the most talented young actors on the Japanese scene), Aniki builds a criminal empire big and brutal enough to take on the mafia itself.

It's an ambitious picture, even for a Renaissance man like Takeshi (he also paints and writes novels, poems and newspaper columns). Brother is a thoroughly Japanese film; Beat Takeshi is a cherished icon in Japan, and he's thrown in all the trimmings of the classical yakuza picture. But it's also a very American gangster film, a story of immigrants holding on to their traditions and getting by the only way they can, a story of loyalty pitted against ambition that recalls the best of the gangster genre, from Scarface to The Godfather. Another twist is that Aniki is an equal-opportunity badass, welcoming into his neo-yakuza family Japanese-American, Latino and black soldiers. It's a perfectly post-PC personnel policy for American audiences, rather radical in Japan, where a certain, shall we say, cultural exclusion is prevalent.

If Beat is risking his Japanese audience with his multi-culti casting and affirmative-action yakuza makeover, Americans might well be put off by the violence in Brother, which is as alarming less for quantity (not that there isn't a lot of it) than for quality. Since his theatrical debut with Violent Cop in 1994 (the title sort of says it all, doesn't it?), Beat has made amped-up brutality a hallmark of his movies. Unlike the carefully escalating overtures and crescendos of violence in American cinema, or the slo-mo operatics of the Hong Kong school, violence in Beat Takeshi's pictures is graphic, abrupt and ugly. It can erupt anywhere, anytime, with no musical cues to steel us for what's coming. Nor does the plot help prepare us. Random acts of casual cruelty will unfold in clinical detail, while climactic showdowns play out unseen behind closed doors.

In Brother, the director outdoes himself. Following Aniki's fall and rise and fall in Japan and America involves a genuinely dazzling number of assaults, lacerations, immolations, decapitations and eviscerations, not to mention the severing of enough fingers to restock a steno pool. Why, the number and quality of brains blown out alone should earn Brother a permanent place in the movie violence Hall of Fame.

Though it is undoubtedly a major work in the evolving gangster genre, Beat's Brother isn't perfect. One of the finest actors ever to direct himself in any film anywhere, Takeshi knows exactly how to handle his own hangdog persona with a Japanese cast. He is less successful managing Epps and the other Americans on the project, making the Westerners seem histrionic and shrill by comparison.

The plotting, too, is uneven. Brother is a bigger story in terms of time, locations and characters than Beat is accustomed to. Some of the threads get a little lost in the shuffle, and at least one of the set pieces, a hotel showdown with Mexican drug lords, shoots blanks. But Beat ultimately pulls it off with a kind of world-weary presence and cryptic charisma the screen hasn't seen since Bogart bought the farm. And with little more than comedies and lackluster Gen-X gangster pics trickling out of Hollywood these days, it's comforting to know we'll at least have this to tide us over.