Takeshi Kitano, also known as Beat Takeshi, was already a Japanese television star known for his comedy when he directed his first film, Violent Cop, in 1989. In that dark thriller, Kitano played the title role with grim, stone-faced conviction. Developing a slow, meditative filming style to match his expressionless face, Kitano turned out one gripping, thoughtful, bloody movie after another in the ’90s, finding darkly poetic peaks with the gangster thriller Sonatine and the mournful Fireworks. Kitano retreated from crime films after his 2000 Hollywood excursion Brother; he instead revived the classic samurai character Zatoichi and turned out a series of self-reflective efforts. With Outrage, he returns to familiar territory. Too bad his heart doesn’t seem to be in the homecoming.
Outrage strips the yakuza film down to its bones. The plot is little more than a series of clockwork machinations that maneuver a handful of characters from one bloodbath to the next. Sôichirô Kitamura plays a pantsuit-favoring yakuza boss who, as the film opens, has come to distrust one of his lieutenants because of his friendly relations to another boss. A series of backhanded maneuvers pits one gang against the other, a conflict that eventually ropes in a pitiless yakuza vet (Takeshi) whose years of experience do little to stop the violence from escalating and the situation slipping out of his control.
As an excursion into a Japanese underworld filled with suit-wearing thugs and ancient traditions (some of which require soldiers to sever their own fingers to save face), Outrage is compelling to watch until it becomes exhausting. Kitano ups the pace from his most famous films and brings more animation to his own character, but the most significant change is the distance the film keeps. Kitano used to be interested in finding the souls beneath his films’ hard-case characters. Here, he mostly seems to want to steer them toward memorably staged deaths. (In that respect, Outrage is a lot like George Romero’s most recent zombie films, where the need to create interesting kills gets emphasized over the elements that used to make the director’s films so compelling.) In that respect, Kitano hasn’t lost a step, and some of the film’s most violent scenes—particularly a confrontation in a noodle house staged while an earbud-wearing customer unwittingly waits for a plate of food—scare up some queasy thrills. But compared to the dramatic riches Kitano used to find amid the bloodletting, Outrage’s feels pretty paltry.