[109 minutes. R. Director: Takeshi Kitano]
In the mid-‘90s, Hollywood had an infatuation with cherry-picking the prolific action stars of Asian cinema and priming them for Stateside stardom. Audiences fell in love with Jackie Chan with Rumble in the Bronx. Chow Yun-Fat (from John Woo’s best films, The Killer and Hard Boiled) headlined stuff like The Replacement Killers and The Corruptor. And Jet Li landed the villain role in Lethal Weapon 4: Too Old for this Shit. While this trio had a good run at the box office and on home video later, one of the more curious – not to mention fleeting – Hollywood acquisitions was that of Takeshi Kitano (who, as an actor, goes by the pseudo-pseudonym Beat Takeshi).
1995’s Johnny Mnemonic will forever have a place in my sentimental heart, as it is one of the first R-rated movies I saw theatrically. A financial flop with a script about 2 decades ahead of its time (the dystopian world it presents – set in Newark, of all places – would transfer gracefully to a NetFlix original series these days), it nonetheless carries an unexpectedly generous 5.6-star average on the IMDb. In that film, Kitano played Takahashi, the CEO of a sinister pharmaceutical company; an older actor at the time, his presence was relegated to lurking in the margins for most of the 96-minute run time. He did possess a distinctive stoicism and physical presence that went toward giving his character hints of dimension missing from the script.
Watching Kitano in Outrage, a completely different kind of film, one sees the passage of time manifesting in ways that complement both his character and the story overall. With piercing dark eyes and a mouth that seems permanently fixed in a sarcastic half-smirk, Kitano possesses the stocky physical frame well-suited to a ruthless gangster. Yet, for as formidable as his directorial prowess is (he also wrote the script), he doesn’t possess the looks and presence of a conventional leading man – his closest Stateside corollary would be Harvey Keitel, whose grizzled, character-actor looks betray a ferocious commitment to craft that is always at odds with Hollywood’s generic notions of what a “protagonist” should be (and thus why his presence gels so well with the likes of outliers and risk-takers like Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino).
Kitano also proves more than capable as a director, bringing scenes of action and ultraviolence to the screen in bold and sometimes unexpected ways. I tried taking notes on the plot of Outrage, but found it a losing battle. The important takeaway is: two factions of the yakuza find themselves embroiled in a turf war, with the “Chairman” (Soichiro Kitamura, a dead ringer for Mao Zedong) of organized crime pulling the strings. It’s all needlessly convoluted, and in the early going, it’s sometimes hard to discern who’s working for whom (perhaps that is Kitano’s deliberate commentary on the conformity and ever-shifting allegiances of cold-blooded criminals in fitted suits).
The violence is slick and impactful in Outrage, from an early scene of a man’s face being slashed with a boxcutter, to a mob boss’s mouth being mutilated (in a dentist’s chair, no less). Like Takashi Miike’s cinematic experiments in cruelty, Kitano has a knack for presenting the aftermath of these brutal injuries with a sense of the poetic, coupled with the type of slight exaggeration one might find in a surreal horror film (the apparatus the mouth-injured boss wears, for instance, looks like something out of Audition or Ichi the Killer). Clearly, this is a world where actions speak louder than words.
Kitano has fun toying with potentially clichéd characters, and while certain performances veer into camp territory, it is always for a purpose. I particularly liked Ishihara (Ryo Kase), a young beanpole in glasses who looks like the least threatening of the Ikemoto Family, but is prone to fits of ferocious brutality; he also occasionally lapses into English, much to the surprise of those playing off his assumed ignorance of the language. The mob bosses themselves come across as middling old men who spend too much time at the spa, or gambling in casinos run by their own clan. With the fickle way the power structure is presented, it’s little wonder that Otomo (Kitano) and his crew starts to get fed up with being low men on the totem pole. Despite the fact that none of the characters engender much audience sympathy, they certainly function as corollaries to the working stiffs watching their “screw-The-Man” exploits.
Jonny Numb’s Rating: 7 out of 10