NYFF 2000 REVIEW: Kitano's Violent Return with "Brother's" Story of Honor
by Ray Pride
(indieWIRE/ 9.28.00) -- Cop, yakuza, wanderer: Takeshi Kitano plays only one role in the films in which he serves as writer, director, painter, producer and sometimes editor, and that is the most imperturbable man on earth. Even before the motorcycle accident that creased his face several years ago, turning a thin smile into a classic smirk, Kitano was the coolest. Combine "Point Blank"'s actor Lee Marvin with its director John Boorman -- and you get some idea of his persona before and behind the camera, improvidently mingling stoicism, lyrical imagery and brutal violence.
Some found "Kikujiro," Kitano's sweetly eccentric story of a belligerent hood who hooks up with a 9-year-old boy looking for his lost mother, to be a touch soft. Yet Kitano's gift for telling, eccentric transitions and framing remained a thing like poetry. For those longing for the ultrasplatter that Kitano has mastered, or the prankish lassitude of the gangsters-in-waiting in his great "Sonatine," the wait should be over. "Brother," however, has gotten a range of dismissive reviews despite the combustible character of its storytelling and the tense conflict between its two worlds of crime, the Japanese Yakuza and the drug-riddled underworld of contemporary Los Angeles where his character finds himself stranded.
Kitted out in immaculate Yohji Yamamoto clothes, Kitano plays Yamamoto, a man whose Yakuza brethren have been all but obliterated by a rival clan. Yamamoto hightails it to the Golden State, despite not speaking English, and joins a younger brother named Ken (Claude Maki). Where Ken had been small change in his drug dealing, Yamamoto cashes out at every opportunity, leading to the inevitable conflict with the local Mafia. Once Yamamoto aligns with the unschooled Denny (Omar Epps), there are variations on the buddy movie and brotherly affection that rise a few swell degrees above the tepid concoction of "Rush Hour." Epps has found someone to improve his "cool," and the combination is heartwarmingly wild, particularly in his latter, heartfelt scenes.
The revenge-ridden "Brother," co-produced by veteran producer Jeremy Thomas for a reported $10 million budget, is more ragged than the immaculately finessed "Fireworks," lacking its pluperfect balance. Yet I still have to be sweet on this one, too: deadpan hilarious, bloody, tender. Most of the subsidiary characters are sketchy, there to be vanquished or at least serenely bloodied, and the film is most successful in its cavalcade of dynamic action scenes.
Can you survive a standoff? That question seems implicit in every late Kitano picture, and his characters are caught at the moment it all begins to teeter: a life's balance, a meditative practice, all blown to smithereens by a careless act or careless word. (Still, he is not as Zen as all that. Watch the fabulous expression flicker over his face to a mass of threatening thugs when he first speaks English, "I understand 'fucking Japs!")
The only thing I found wearying was Joe Hisaishi's soaring, sincerely phony cocktail jazz: its inappropriate piss-elegance in "Fireworks" still moves me as much as the awful soiled swank of the comparably good-"bad" score to "The Long Good Friday." Yet here, it detracts from Kitano's eye for landscape, the sea, his love of explosions and viscera, and the admiration for the insensible dictates of honor and what it demands of you.
[Ray Pride is a contributing editor to Filmmaker and longtime film editor for Chicago's Newcity. He writes about movies for TNT's Roughcut.com, Time Out New York and the BBC World Service, among others.]