[Deep Focus]
Gangsta style

Brother juxtaposes the contemplative ultraviolence favored by Japanese director Takeshi Kitano with the profiteering gangsterism that's always marked the American crime film. The story is a mere variation on your standard fish-out-of-water yarn, but it's more satisfying than usual because it's informed by Kitano's trademark style and grace.

Kitano edits his own films, and his visual trademarks are a shrewd combination of direction and editing. He often edits by elision, setting up a situation that will surely involve violence or confrontation only to cut immediately to the aftermath—perhaps a body lying prone on the ground, or two men reconciliating after a fight. This move is very effective because it forces the viewer to look inward to fill in the gaps. But, by contrast, he also chooses to photograph some moments of terrible violence in provocative closeup -- a set of chopsticks rammed up through someone's nostrils and into their skull, or the explosive bullet wounds that pepper so many of his supporting players during gun battles pitched somewhere between Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. Because Kitano has proved that he knows how to look away, it's when he chooses not to flinch, indulging his characteristic, dare-I-say-poetic way with violence, that his films register their oddly calming effects.

To some degree, Kitano's films have always been about his resignation to the fact that the world is a bad place. That's one of the reasons Kikujiro, in which a cranky Beat Takeshi plays surrogate father to an adorable kid in search of a lost mother, works as well as it does—the notion of such a world-weary figure protecting an innocent child, fending off lecherous old men and turning bikers into seaside playmates, may be sentimental, but this screen persona is so strong and invested with such pathos that he manages to bring it off.

There's considerably more strength than pathos in Brother, in keeping with the codes of the American action movie. Kitano plays Yamamoto, a Japanese yakuza who's marked for death after his boss is killed but is instead allowed by his would-be executor to flee to the U.S. Once in Los Angeles, Yamamoto looks up his younger brother Ken, a small-time drug dealer whose gang Yamamoto joins and shapes up, yakuza-style.

Mostly, the point of view is Kitano's. As the film opens, the title clearly refers to Yamamoto, whose relation to Ken stands in opposition to his obvious foreign-ness. At the same time, it describes the relationship that develops between the Japanese Yamamoto and Denny (Omar Epps), Ken's African-American pal. Navigating the L.A. sidewalks, Yamamoto first encounters Denny as a stranger, slamming into him by accident and knocking his bottle of wine to the pavement. We see the sequence through Yamamoto's eyes, with the largish man he faces becoming more and more aggressive. In response, Kitano bends over, pick up the shattered bottle, regards Denny for a moment, then slashes his face with the jagged glass, injuring his eye. Later, at Ken's apartment, Denny stares at the man for a very long time, almost but not quite sure that he recognizes him. With quintessentially Eastern cool, Kitano stares back. Apologies are not forthcoming. The long sequence is uncomfortable in part because it’s racially provocative; the whole film is considered with the violence that springs up along racial and natural boundaries as well as the conciliatory relationships that can exist across the same lines.

Under Yamamoto's tutelage, Ken and his band of brothers will first blow their way through the small-time chollos who rule the downtown streets and then spread the carnage wider, going up against the actual (that is to say, the Italian) Mafia. For all the impressive splatter, Kitano's envisioning of multiethnic Los Angeles is disappointingly bloodless; even compared to a popcorn like The Fast and the Furious, Brother's racially coded milieu bears the awkward mark of an outsider. For the most part, Kitano's execution is striking enough to make up for the false notes, and it's clear that the film itself is meant as a hands-across-the-water gesture to unite the Japanese style of filmmaking with Hollywood. But despite a rousing, sardonically funny first half, the scenario becomes less engaging even as the body count rockets higher. By the time Kitano faces a final showdown with the Italians out in the California desert, the director's style seems to have been subsumed largely by a U.S.-friendly tendency toward conventionality.

One exception is a pickup basketball game played within the gang’s capacious headquarters. Disconnected from the narrative and shot in a long take from one point of view, the episode is necessarily improvised to some extent; the stationary camera only highlights the humor and physicality of the game. Some subsequenting romping on a California beach feels derivative of past Kitano films, particularly the superior Sonatine, and contributes to the sense that Brother is, to some extent, a greatest-hits compilation.

Familiar as they are, the violent fluorishes remain stunning and cathartic, particularly a pitched gunfight that takes place in darkness punctuated by strobe flashes of gangsters frozen in their death throes. And it's interesting to see how well this archetypally hard-boiled character plays to American audiences. ("Cold-blooded!" marveled the guy a couple of rows behind me on opening day.) I suppose it’s mainly Kitano's face — alternately warm and chilly, weatherbeaten and oddly expressive in spite of its partial paralysis — that speaks clearly in any language.

Written, directed and edited by Takeshi Kitano
Cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Starring Beat Takeshi and Omar Epps
USA, 2001

Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened at AMC Empire 25, New York, NY

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DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer