“Outrage,” Takeshi Kitano‘s return to the yakuza genre, received mixed reviews from critics when it had its first official screenings at Cannes in 2010. Though we weren’t initially planning on seeing it on the Croisette, we kept hearing positive chatter about the film and decided to catch the last screening, and judging by the lines which began forming more than two hours before the doors opened, the anticipation for the film certainly hasn’t abated despite critical indifference.
To be certain, “Outrage” — like Kitano’s previous yakuza entries — is grim, violent stuff, but this time around, the cynicism that is imbued from the opening frames through to the closing credits made us wonder what the point of this particular exercise was. The overly complex story, involving a nearly endless array of betrayals, counter-betrayals, mixups, revenge killings and boring yakuza politics, starts from a comical misunderstanding between two tentatively peaceful families. When a member of one clan hooks up with a young prostitute controlled by another family, he is essentially blackmailed for 600,000 yen. However, once his allegiance to the other powerful crime family is revealed, apologies are forced to be made in a rather brutal fashion, and thus begin numerous retributions and plays for power that won’t end until the final credits roll.
In the early stages of the film, Kitano’s dark humor and absurdist take on the genre is involving, refreshing and gleefully vicious (you might never look at a boxcutter or dentist drill the same way again, after a couple of audience-gasping scenes). But the film soon settles into a deadening array of beatings and murders. After a while, it’s no use keeping up with the shifting politics or reasoning behind the violent grab for control enacted by numerous yakuza members, because just as acension happens, characters are killed off. The body count in this one is so high that it takes the wind right out of the sails of the narrative. We simply have no investment in any one character long enough to really care about their fate. That is, with the exception of Ôtomo played by Takeshi Kitano. But he is so busy smirking both behind and in front of the camera it becomes clear that he’s taking the piss, and while it’s clever and sort of fun in the opening stages, by the end it’s simply enerverating.
The problem with “Outrage” is that its detached cool and moral bankruptcy is something we’ve seen before not only from Kitano, but from countless other Japanese filmmakers. It seems like every year a few more of these come down the pipeline with a couple of memorable characters and some inventively wicked violence, but with very little new to say. For some fans, “Outrage” will deliver what they want with enough maimed appendages, decaptitations and mutilations to keep them happy, but for the rest of us the film is simply exhausting. By the time Kitano gets to the last few killings, all of which lead to an oh-so-cool ironic “twist” ending, the picture is completely deflated and revealed to be an empty piñata.
“Outrage” makes a point of mentioning that the way of the yakuza has grown old, and one can’t help but wonder if Kitano feels that the yakuza film, as we’ve also known it, is also over. There is a sense of finality that runs through the last reels that gives more than a suggestion that “Outrage” may be Kitano’s last gasp in the genre. If so, he’s gone out with a near-parody, pointing out the futility and ridiculousness of the so-called honor system that runs through the yakuza, revealing it to be simply empty words. However, his approach goes from cynicism to indifference to outright contempt; Kitano doesn’t seem to care about his characters, so why should we? Yes, the film is beautifully shot, and the violence has a certain choreographed quality to it that is impressive, but it’s not enough this time around. [C-]
This is an edited version of our review from Cannes.