“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” the adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 British spy novel, will leave a lot of viewers confused when it hits theaters next Friday. Of course, that’s exactly what the author intended. A talky Cold War drama about British intelligence agents trying to uncover a Soviet mole, the story piles up details at the expense of conventional suspense, upending genre traditions and showing that real corruption is just a bureaucratic headache. With a harsher edge and different context, Japanese director Takeshi Kitano achieves that same intent with the gritty yakuza drama “Outrage.”
The prolific Kitano, a near-iconic actor-director and television host in his native country, has dealt with similar material before. “Outrage” demonstrates no major urge to push its crime family narrative in new directions, but instead repeatedly thrusts in one direction many times over. Kitano makes clear from the opening minutes that the eagle-eyed Sekiuchi (Kitamura Soichiro) maintains a tight grip on Japan’s Kanto region and fears that other crime families threaten his reign. His paranoia has a trickle-down effect, impacting various other mob bosses and eventually instigating a series of assassinations, beatdowns, and tantrums disguised as threats.
The yakuza’s anger, alternately expressed with physical and verbal extremes, takes the place of a plot. More than that, Kitano nearly gets away with it.
On the one hand, “Outrage” suffers from a cold removal from the events portrayed onscreen, mainly a series of arguments and gory acts of retribution. It’s often a terrible bore. But the stylish execution renders many moments into imminently watchable pastiche. Endless confrontations take place in brightly-lit nightclubs and palatial lairs, where thugs from a handful of yakuza factions whine endlessly about breached pacts and turf wars.
Keeping up with the specifics will only take you so far, but needlessly to say, Kitano eventually singles out himself not only as director but star: He plays tired yakuza boss Otomo, a straigtfaced man hoping to gain control of a gang led by more openly aggressive Murase (Renji Ishibashi) and please chairman Sekiuchi in the process. When not barking commands to his underlings, Sekiuchi delights in watching the carnage unfold so he can find a worthy successor to his regime.
Unlikely candidates aren’t just weeded out; that would be too easy. When Murase kills a rival gang member and angers his leader, an entire crew tracks him down to his dentist and drills a nasty hole in his gums that transforms the wily crook into a gauze-encrusted cartoon of a villain. In other cruel visitations, fingers are lopped off with ease; in one case, chopsticks make an unlikely weapon of torture.
These episodes continue with increasing frequently until they dominate the action. Aggressiveness is the only language available to these men. A typical exchange: “What family are you from?” “None of your business.” “Asshole.” Commence fight.
Having premiered “Outrage” in competition at Cannes in 2010, Kitano has already completed a sequel set for release next year. Since the first movie is almost entirely composed of bloody encounters, one assumes the next entry will offer the same repetitive chaos in different configurations. And that’s really enough for anyone willing to take Kitano’s technique at face value.
With its matter-of-fact progression from one spat to another, “Outrage” contains an emphasis on mayhem that approach slapstick. The sudden violence maintains ample shock value, but its repetitiveness grows increasingly absurd (sometimes amusingly so) for the mindlessness behind its application. Not once does anyone consider putting down the guns and talking things over. Instead, another limb gets discarded, another bullet shell falls. “Outlasting everyone is the best revenge,” someone advises Otomo, although he never even considers pacifism. Completely devoid of non-corrupt characters, “Outrage” announces its singleminded tone in the title alone.
Not that I’m complaining about it. Using an approach that calls to mind “Breathless” (if nowhere near as insightful), “Outrage” puts gangsters in quotation marks by reducing them to thin stereotypes of brutality. However, because of Kitano’s assured handling of the material, he turns those broad strokes into a tense portrait of power-hungry men with insatiable appetites and the incapacity to shut up about it. With substantially more ambition, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” fits the same description.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Hitting the U.S. long after its overseas debut, “Outrage” may find its niche audience in the U.S. on VOD (where it has been available for several weeks on HDnet) but its theatrical prospects are miniscule. Magnet opens the film in New York and Los Angeles.