You probably don’t need a critic to tell you that “The Outsider,” a tragically real crime drama in which Jared Leto plays a silent but violent enforcer for the Yakuza in post-war Japan, is 100% percent horrendous. After all, when was the last time you saw a good Yakuza movie starring Jared Leto?
Of course, “The Outsider” didn’t have to be yet another story about a white dude who manages to insinuate himself into a historically inaccessible Japanese subculture just to have sex with the most coveted native woman around and then ruin everyone’s life in the noble pursuit of something no one asked him to do in the first place. You’d like to think that Hollywood would eventually learn from the mistakes (or even the title) of “The Last Samurai,” and perhaps one day it will. But today is not that day. Today is just the day that a Netflix Original Movie completely desaturates those old tropes, sucking the color out of this gritty and exhausted underworld saga until whiteness is all that’s left.
Our tale begins in a bleak Japanese prison, where Nick Lowell has been serving an unknown period of time for an unspecified crime. Flawless skin and hair slicked back, Nick looks hilariously good for someone who’s supposed to have been in jail for the better part of a decade. Which is not to say that it feels unrealistic — after all, the character is being played by a 46-year-old actor who looks 30 on a bad day, the only rational explanation being that Leto is somehow rejuvenated by bad reviews, and made “Suicide Squad” in a sinister bid to live forever. Anyway, these early sequences are some of the film’s most involving, as Nick is still a gaijin scavenger with only his survival instincts to see him through.
Nick’s fortunes begin to change after he saves a Yakuza named Kiyoshi (the great Asano Tadanobu) from being hanged to death, resulting in a debt that Kiyoshi repays by springing Nick out of prison and putting him to work in the family business. The pretext is that a rival Osaka gang already has an American of their own, and that Kiyoshi’s crew needs someone to help cancel him out, but this detail is only relevant to the plot for exactly one scene an hour later. In the meantime, Nick shoots a lot of people in the head and falls in love with Kiyoshi’s gorgeous sister (Kutsuna Shiori), as though she were the only girl in Japan. She insists that she doesn’t need Nick’s protection, but he’s just so big and strong, and what mortal woman could possibly resist a guy who delivers every sentence with such strained intensity that it sounds like someone is standing on his windpipe? It’s like no one ever bothered to inform Leto that he was done playing Niander Wallace.
Beyond that, Nick is a total blank. We don’t know why he was in jail or who he might have been before he got there, and Andrew Baldwin’s screenplay never gives us any reason to care. The character is little more than empty vessel for violence (the universal language), but the movie refuses to treat Nick like a stray dog who isn’t allowed inside the house.
On the contrary, it thinks of him as a darkly compelling anti-hero, convinced that he’s dynamic enough to bring new life to old clichés. Viewers conversant in Yakuza classics will roll their eyes at the protracted scenes of Leto chopping off his own pinkies in shame, while newcomers to the genre will find plenty of their own reasons to be bored stiff: The film’s stolid pacing drains the life from Gitte Malling’s elegant production design, and its underdeveloped story of gang warfare spectacularly fails to deliver on the rain-slicked drama of Camilla Hjelm’s cinematography.
Most frustrating of all is how “The Outsider” refuses to shift its focus away from its title character, even when the film makes a point of how this story might be more engaging from a Japanese perspective. Kiyoshi in particular represents a wasted opportunity. A lifelong gangster who can’t exist beyond the underworld ecosystem, Kiyoshi is indebted to Nick, but also struggling to make sense of the foreigner’s loyalties.
Can a gaijin ever be trusted like family, or will his motives ultimately be self-serving? It’s an interesting question in a story that’s otherwise completely devoid of interesting questions, but “The Outsider” is too enamored with its foreign star (and/or too allergic to the idea of moving Asano to the foreground) to ever engage with that idea in a meaningful way. The more this film begs to be told from the inside out, the more Zandvliet shoots it from the outside in. It’s enough to make you wish he hadn’t shot it at all.
“The Outsider” begins streaming on Netflix on March 9th.