Synopsis – An epic set in post-WWII Japan and centered on an American former G.I. who joins the yakuza.
My Take – As Netflix continues to gain steam by signing up more and more accomplished filmmakers to churn out new content for their streaming channel, you all may noticed how their quality on original films keeps plummeting. Such is the case of this yet another disappointing entry in to their gallery, which after beginning life as a spec on the 2011 Blacklist, writer Andrew Baldwin‘s script was first circled as a possible Michael Fassbender project at Warner Bros., before it was developed by Tom Hardy and prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, who might have brought a sinister edge to the material. In what now looks like a savvy move, Hardy and Miike bailed on the film in 2014. Two years later, Jared Leto was announced as the lead with Martin Zandvliet (Land of Mine) directing, with Netflix scooping up the worldwide distribution rights at the end of 2016, but few paid any attention to the film until the trailer dropped earlier this year and generated controversy for being yet another example of a Hollywood film about Asian culture with a white protagonist. Unsurprisingly, this film which was apparently produced to cater to a sizable chunk of viewers who are invested in Japanese crime dramas, does nothing inventive other than being one of the most tediously generic yakuza stories imaginable. Sure, there are intriguing elements, but the film is so severely impeded by its writing that it also fails at following basic storytelling conventions, and feels more like a bad 80’s B-film that was shot and lighted with modern equipment. There are intriguing elements here and there, but nothing too surprising, just heavily clichéd and very slow.
Set in 1950s Osaka, the story follows Nick Lowell (Jared Leto), a former G.I. who finds himself in a Japanese jail in post-WWII as a POW. However, after saving Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano), a member of the Shiromatsu crime family, from being murdered by the hands of fellow inmates and members of the rival Seizo family, Nick finds himself drawn into the orbit of the criminal underworld. Brought into the yakuza fold as a token of gratitude, Kiyoshi convinces his bosses that Nick’s fearlessness, adaptability and talent for sudden violence would make him a useful tool to the yakuza clan, and one they’ll need as their rivalry with the Seizo family has now blossomed into bloodshed in a war for control of Osaka in general and the city’s valuable docks in particular. In time, Nick proves his worth, and soon he finds himself in the good graces of the head of the family, Akihiro (Min Tanaka). But many of those in the gang, including Kiyoshi’s good friend, Orochi (Kippei Shiina), are much less accepting, still seeing only a white American man with allegiance to no family or country, especially when he strikes up a romance with Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna). This should’ve been great, as the concept, of the fish out of water story line is a tried and tested, and the setting within the Yakuza in post-WW2 Japan was potentially an inspired choice. As a Yakuza film, the film’s story-line remained faithful to the 1960 – 70’s Yakuza genre with its typical subject of betrayal and honor, in other words fans of the Yakuza Papers Anthology won’t be disappointed. However, the film doesn’t delve anywhere near deep enough into these ideas, and instead remained very much on the outside. Perhaps that was a choice of the filmmakers, but as a storytelling device that only works for the characters, not the audience. If the plot feels somewhat broad or hazy, it’s not necessarily because the film’s hard to follow, but because director Martin Zandvliet slowly reveals it through opaque strokes. The gurgling thematic undercurrent of the film is that of a man seeking and ultimately gaining acceptance. It’s about someone so devoted to the people and culture from which they’re ostracized that they’re willing to offer parts of themselves just to be one of the guys; just to not be an outsider anymore. That’s not an unreasonable theme, but it’s tough to care about a bloodthirsty nutcase being welcomed with open arms by a gang of criminals, Japanese or otherwise. It’s possible that the film will be gruesomely enticing for Netflix’s hypothetical audience of Yakuza fans, as all of the genre’s greatest hits are represented, from the betrayal of a trusted right-hand man to someone chopping off the tips of his fingers as a ritual expression of remorse for a screw up. But everything on the checklist feels utterly rote, though, especially with Nick occupying an emotional void at the film’s core. And coming to the film’s biggest problem, the lead at the center is quite unlikable and pretty blank.
Nick is as undeveloped as a character, and we never get to figure out what makes him tick, as on the outside, he is trying to be accomplished assassin, but what is he thinking? What are his values? Not a clue. At first not knowing anything about Nick’s motivation or much of his backstory is a little intriguing, but as the film came to a close I realized that I never did ever care about what would happen to him. Because the film only offers Nick the murkiest of backstories and is unwilling to plumb his inner life, the character’s effortless embrace of every part of Japanese culture feels like an affectation. Even after Nick has seamlessly transitioned into a hard-nosed Yakuza warrior, his motivations and emotions are concealed beneath Leto‘s cool, inscrutable gaze and persistent whisper-talking, which ensure that the character remains lost. After Nick runs into a former military buddy (Emile Hirsch), we get a hint that he has a troubled wartime past, but even this moment gives no insight into what actually drives him. The reasons for Nick’s strict adherence to Yakuza codes of honor, as evidenced by his large back tattoo and willingness to chop off a couple of fingers following a botched job, are left shrouded in mystery. Here, it seemed like as director Zandvliet didn’t seem particularly interested in the internal politics of the Yakuza, or their history, or their culture. Rather, the film is an accumulation of neat looking things that suggest nothing of Nick’s internal monologue, growth, or motivations beyond what he barely acknowledges. At times, the film wisely pushes Nick—and his courtship of Kiyoshi’s sister, with whom Orochi has his own history—into the background, allowing for an examination of the inner workings of the Shiromatsu family business and their preparation for a turf war. The generational conflict between Orochi, who advocates for a consolidation of multiple families to ensure profitable investments, and the tradition-bound Kiyoshi and Akihiro, who prioritize family over profits, is certainly intriguing. But this scrutiny of a post-war Japan confronting the inevitable rise of global capital is never given the weight it deserves and is undercut by the obligatory refocusing on Nick’s struggle to be accepted as a true member of the Shiromatsu family. The rest of the characters have almost zero development, so by the film’s end you realize that you don’t really care about the characters because you weren’t allowed to get invested in them in any kind of way. In comparison, Kiyoshi is a much more interesting character, but even with him as protagonist this one would still be a miscalculation as another bland Yakuza film. Sure, the film was stylish and quite atmospheric, but it also suffers from poor pacing. When there was action, it was bloody and gory and often spontaneous, which can work to good effect, but never did I find it particularly shocking because there was no buildup or sense of tension. Yet, the film does has a few joyous elements, for example one highlight of the film being Camilla Hjlelm’s cinematography, as she masterfully films a post-war Japan in a neutral palette, only exploding neon colors intermittently to highlight the draw of the city scape for Nick. There’s also a really well shot sequence of Japanese tattoo artistry which I enjoyed. Most of what this film has to offer is in the culturally-charged visuals revolving around Japanese and Yakuza tradition, but not much outside of that. It’s also hard to see why Jared Leto signed up for the part, as he is terribly miscast here. Honestly, his acting is just fine here and I think any complaints about the character being dry or mysterious should be directed at the screenwriters or the director. Sometimes it’s just the way characters are written and as an actor, you have to go with it. However, being a method actor, even when he’s in trash, he’s committed. I’ve liked Tadanobu Asano in everything I’ve seen him in and here he delivers another great performance with many nuances. A shame that he was a little underused. Kippei Shîna is good while Shioli Kutsuna and Emile Hirsch are wasted. The other actors also do a good job, especially considering that their parts are just as underwritten as Nick’s. On the whole, ‘The Outsider‘ is an underwritten non compelling crime drama which despite an aesthetic setting never delivers on its potential.
Directed – Martin Zandvliet
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes