by Glenn Lovell
To make amends for a perceived slight to the Boss of Bosses, an aging Yakuza named Otomo saws off his left pinky and delivers it to the big man. The Chairman’s top lieutenant isn’t impressed. He picks up the bloodied handkerchief and stuffs it back in Otomo’s pocket.
“Your old-fashioned finger chopping is worthless,” he sneers.
“Outrage” (in Japanese with English subtitles) is the latest crime thriller from action auteur Takeshi Kitano, who’s a TV-movie superstar at home but is probably best known on these shores for his teacher-referee in the ultraviolent “Battle Royale.” This time around, besides writing, editing, directing and starring ‒ as the battered, Bogart-stoic Otomo ‒ Kitano mows down what genre conventions are left standing after John Woo and Takashi Miike have had their say.
The results play like “Macbeth” by way of “Goodfellas,” a labyrinthine game of cat-and-mouse bathed in buckets of the red stuff. It’s grim but sleekly designed, easily Kitano’s best work since his classic “Sonatine.” In that one, Kitano’s Yakuza boss is sent into exile, where he bides his time, plotting revenge. In this one, befitting these more cynical times, Kitano’s character is banished but, in the end, opts for survival over a face-saving suicide run.
“The days are over for old school Yakuza,” an undercover cop reminds him. “Outlasting everyone is the best revenge.”
Don’t try to follow the plot; it’s a frustrating, purposely convoluted patchwork of double- and triple-crosses. The story opens “Godfather”-style at a syndicate summit, where the Chairman (Soichiro Kitamura) strongly suggests that Otomo’s boss, Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura), distance between himself from an old buddy named Murase (Renji Ishibashi), whose family is bringing unnecessary heat through drug trafficking. To satisfy the Chairman, Ikemoto has Otomo concoct “a minor dispute” with Murase’s men. Ikemoto demands restitution, a hefty slice of the drug trade. “How humiliating!” Murase sputters.
The seemingly trifling offense quickly escalates into a grisly tit-for-tat game of one-upmanship, and before anyone can say, “Hey, this is ridiculous,” it’s all-out warfare, with the Chairman pitting one pretender to the throne against another. And per his M.O., Kitano doesn’t stint on the violence, much of it meted out by his smirking hatchet man. Cheeks are slashed, fingers sawed off with blunt instruments, rival gangs blown away in slow mo. And if that doesn’t sate your appetite, Kitano also throws in an attack with chopsticks and an impromptu root canal. (The latter brings to mind Dustin Hoffman’s cavity torture in “Marathon Man.”)
No one is immune from the ever-spiraling circle of crime. An African ambassador is blackmailed into turning his embassy into a casino. When he bulks, one of Otomo’s men asks, incredulously, “Hey, you know you’re dealing with the Yakuza?”
That’s pure Kitano ‒ at once ominous and funny. “Outrage” is full of such grimly hilarious moments. It’s to Japanese crime syndicate dramas what Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” was to the classic Hollywood caper ‒ a subversive, take-no-prisoners assault on the genre.
OUTRAGE ✮✮✮ With Beat Takeshi, Kippei Shiina, Soichiro Kitamura, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi. Directed, written by Takeshi Kitano. 109 min. Rated R (for nudity, profanity, extreme violence)