Veteran filmmaker and Renaissance man Takeshi Kitano returns to the Japanese underworld in Outrage, a competent, coolly efficient tale of Yakuza backstabbing and double-dealing punctuated by Kitano's familiar bursts of brutal violence, yet largely lacking the introspective existentialism that defines the director's best work. Though longtime fans are sure to savor the pulpy plot and occasional flashes of dark humor, Outrage unfortunately doesn't bring much new to the table in terms of creative innovation, making it a rather pedestrian crime drama despite the immense talent involved on both sides of the camera.
Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) is a gangster with a serious problem. His boss is The Chairman (Soichiro Kitamura), the head of the powerful Sanno-kai crime family, and he isn't happy that Ikemoto has close ties to Murase (Renji Ishibashi), a rival crime boss. While the Murase gang deals largely in drugs, The Chairman has been attempting to steer the Sanno-kai family toward more respectable business endeavors. When the time comes for Ikemoto to prove his loyalty to The Chairman, the conflicted gangster dispatches his head mechanic Otomo (Takeshi Kitano) to reassert Sanno-kai's status as the more powerful family and to remind Murase that the gangs are still at war. Soon, what began as a petty power play erupts into an all-out war in which no one is safe and no one can be trusted.
It's easy to see why storytellers such as Kitano and Martin Scorsese continually feel compelled to mine the lurid world of gangsters and criminals for their art -- the personalities of the characters are usually colorful and larger than life, the underworld's complex code of honor makes for rich drama and unexpected plot twists, and the violence offers viewers a way to spend time in that lurid world without any real threat of harm -- but in the case of Outrage, at least, it's beginning to feel as if Kitano is simply going through the motions in place of offering his fans something new. And though Kitano knows those motions well enough to make Outrage highly watchable, with the exception of a few shock-factor moments it's impossible not to feel like we've seen this all before. As a writer, Kitano's grasp of pacing is still sharpened to a fine point, but in Outrage he casts his net too wide: There are simply too many characters in the film and some -- such as a foreign ambassador who reluctantly gets mixed up with the Yakuza -- are simply abandoned once they no longer serve a purpose in the plot. Sure, it helps to keep the action moving at a fast clip, but ultimately it leaves the story feeling somewhat incomplete and unsatisfying.
Still, even those bored with the typical Yakuza plot mechanics will have difficulty denying that the final 30 minutes or so of Outrage offer enough bullets in the back to keep viewers constantly guessing as to how it will all play out. Of course, this doesn't make it a masterwork by a long shot, but fans of Kitano's crime films will likely forgive the director his indulgences as they walk away on a bit of a high. Perhaps the best aspect of Outrage is the reminder that Kitano still has one of the best deadpans in movie history -- one that would likely have had the power to crack up even the great Buster Keaton. Given Kitano's talent as the driving force behind such unique existential films as Takeshis and Glory to the Filmmaker! in recent years, it's hard to accuse him of falling into a rut or coasting on creative autopilot. Additionally, given his previous success in the crime genre, it's clear why some fans would look forward to seeing the master revisit some familiar themes, but he's always been at his best when he's defying convention, and Outrage is just about as conventional as Yakuza films come.