[Screen It]

(2001) (Beat Takeshi, Omar Epps) (R)

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Drama/Action: A stoic Japanese gangster travels to Los Angeles to find his half-brother and quickly ends up returning to his old criminal ways by trying to take over the city's criminal trade.
Yamamoto (BEAT TAKESHI) is a stoic, but highly efficient and lethal gangster who's been abandoned by the brotherhood of his yakuza clan and forced to leave Tokyo. Arriving in Los Angeles, he searches for his younger half-brother, Ken (CLAUDE MAKI), and discovers that he's a small-time criminal who peddles drugs with his friends Denny (OMAR EPPS), Jay (ROYALE WATKINS) and Mo (LOMBARDO BOYAR).

It isn't long before Yamamoto's taking care of "business" again, however, as he helps the low-level dealers by eliminating their supplier and rival competitors. Yamamoto's gang soon begins to grow in both size and power, and various associates from back home, including Kato (SUSUMU TERAJIMA), Sujimoto (JAMES SHIGETA) and others, join the operation.

With success comes increased competition and danger, however, which causes Yamamoto to join forces with rival crime lord Shirase (MASAYA KATO). From that point on, the stoic but deadly gangster and his followers do what they must to control the Los Angeles crime scene, including taking on the powerful and dangerous mafia.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Contrary to the common sense of everyday life, moviegoers seem to love, like or at least be fascinated by stoic, tough man characters found in any variety of films. While we probably wouldn't necessarily want to live next door to them or accidentally encounter them in some darkened alley, such people of little words, steely gazes and take-no-prisoners attitudes and behavior are nothing short of mesmerizing on the big screen.

One only need think of the characters played by the likes of Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones or Charles Bronson and such characteristics immediately come to mind. One can now add Beat Takeshi to that list thanks to his mesmerizing performance in "Brother," a hard-hitting tale of crime, violence and the Japanese concept of the yakuza.

Of course, few people probably know or will be able to ascertain from the credits that Takeshi is really also writer and director Takeshi Kitano. A prolific Japanese filmmaker ("Kikujiro," "Hana-Bi") and actor ("Johnny Mnemonic," "Boiling Point"), Kitano helms his first English-speaking film shot in a foreign country, and the results are a mixed bag of success and failure.

While fans of ultra-violent flicks or at least such material from the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo will probably find enough guns, blood and mayhem to satiate such cinematic needs, those looking for a cohesive and comprehensible plot may not be as happy or satisfied by what Kitano delivers in this film.

I'll readily admit to knowing next to nothing about the director's previous efforts and only possessing a basic knowledge of any symbolism or cultural elements of Japanese cinema (learned solely from watching a variety of pictures from there). Accordingly, I may be missing some vital element of understanding and/or appreciating the style and substance of what's offered here. Looking at the film from a general moviegoing experience, however, it's likely to frustrate viewers not alienated or put off by all of the violent material in the first place.

In what could have also been titled "Last Man Standing," Kitano's plot follows a familiar course of smalltime, new or outside forces attempting to build and/or take over lucrative drug and criminal business from those already firmly entrenched in such. Not surprisingly, the locals aren't happy with that and thus put up a fight to hold onto what they have. Unfortunately, that doesn't include the Japanese terminator - Takeshi's steely character - who brings his experience from Japan to Los Angeles and has no qualms about removing any and all obstacles for the benefit of his gang.

As in most such films, they quickly make a name and place for themselves in this world. They also make more powerful enemies and soon the bullets are flying, more bodies are dropping and the blood flow picks up in intensity, all leading to fewer and fewer participants and then an old West style, last man standing shoot out.

For those who like such films - with a clear Japanese spin - that's all fine and dandy in concept (but not particularly in originality), and the film does have a certain palatability to it that will engage the sort of viewer who can't help stopping and staring at a car accident. Yet, for a film with a story to tell, this one is rife with problems that ground it far too much.

A certain amount of discernable tension is present simply because people are taken out (killed) so suddenly and forcibly - seemingly at random on occasion - that we grit our teeth in anticipation of more of the same occurring at any moment. Yet, such homicidal mayhem happens so often, and without any in-depth emotional connection, that we become desensitized to it as it progressively builds.

If doesn't help that we don't know much, if anything about those characters, some of which we don't even know their names. Accordingly, we don't really worry or care about, let alone sympathize or empathize with them. We know even less about the antagonists who oppose their plans and behavior. As a unified body, they have the requisite antagonistic qualities, but none of that is individually personified, thus diminishing the degree of conflict that the protagonists face.

Making matters worse, the story is extremely episodic and fragmented, with a plot that we can follow on the most basic level - since we've seen this sort of story a gazillion times before - but that doesn't always make complete sense when it comes to the fine details. Thus, no real momentum is maintained except for what the retaliation material can generate. In addition, much of the film feels like things were either edited out - by Kitano who also serves as editor - or simply never put in by Kitano the writer. Thus, the story may move forward from point A to Z, but does so in a herky-jerky fashion that prevents the viewer from being or becoming as involved as they should be.

Beyond that, most of the characters don't show any real worry about repercussions that are occurring, with many having that kamikaze/samurai mentality of "If I die, I die." While there's a certain, tough man movie allure to all of that, it does rob the film of any leftover semblance of realism.

Even worse, the police or other such authorities are all but absent, save for a few crooked cops briefly seen taking a payoff. All of this mayhem takes place in a world that only exists in the movies where all of the gunfire, bodies and body parts don't draw the attention of the "good guys," thus eliminating that possible level of additional conflict for the protagonist.

Kitano does try to lighten things up a bit through the light score that doesn't work well at all (for a film like this) and by adding some lighter moments to the proceedings. Most of them come in the form of the odd couple relationship between his character and the one played by Omar Epps ("Love and Basketball," "The Wood"). While such moments don't really do much other than break up the lethal mayhem, they are rather effective in showing bits and pieces of the human qualities behind these two characters that we don't otherwise see.

As far as the performances are concerned, Takeshi is credible doing the Eastwood thing, while Epps is decent, but mostly wasted in a very underdeveloped role. Everyone else is pretty much fodder for the meat grinder, with Masaya Kato ("Crying Freeman," "The Setting Sun") playing a local gangster brought into the fold, Claude Maki ("Golden Wolf," "Falling Angels") playing the protagonist's younger half-brother and Susumu Terajima ("Sonatine," "Violent Cop") playing a homeland associate of Yamamoto's.

While the action is decently staged and Kitano - the performer - is intriguing (despite an inconsistently applied facial twitch), the film's episodic and fragmented nature, along with the increasingly melodramatic dialogue, confusing and unexplained moments, and odd pacing undermine what Kitano - as writer, editor and director - is trying to accomplish. Accordingly, "Brother" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 20, 2001 / Posted July 27, 2001

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