Takeshi Kitano's "Brother" (IMDb listing) is probably the most crucial gangster film to come out in the last ten years. Continuing his exploration of the Japanese yakuza criminal code that he began in his films "Sonatine" and "Fireworks," Kitano reaches deep into himself to create a film of haunting brutality, lyrical dramatics, and a much needed overhauling and distilling of the organized crime genre.
After being cast aside by his Japanese brotherhood, Yamamoto (Kitano) has ventured to Los Angeles in search of Ken (Claude Maki), his younger half-brother. Ken introduces Yamamoto to his crew of small time drug dealers (including American actor Omar Epps), and a tentative bond is formed between the young punks and the hardened Japanese gangster. Either out of habit or the sheer force of his nature, Yamamoto takes the petty criminals and fashions them into a gang of his own. Trading Fubu for Armani, SUVs for Limos, and malt liquor for expensive wine, Yamamoto turns the ragtag crew into one of the most powerful and deadly crime organizations on the streets of Los Angeles. Teaming up with a rival crime lord (Masaya Kato), Yamamoto and the boys find their match in the Italian Mafia. In trying to topple the crime dynasty, the newbie gangsters learn the true value of showing respect and the danger that comes with the yakuza code of honor.
Watching "Brother," it makes me wish I hadn't been introduced to Kitano through his darling 1999 comedy "Kikujiro." Spare, heartbreaking, and chock full of Charlie Chaplin-esque moments, Kitano made a tender film as good as anything released that year. Reclaiming his past, "Brother" is about as far removed from "Kikujiro" as a movie can get.
Recalling how Clint Eastwood used to make movies, and how Wes Anderson currently does, Kitano is a deliberately slow and careful filmmaker interested in more than just style and performance. He accentuates moments over story, thus creating films that grip you emotionally over the course of the running time, and not just through expected character empathy. Punctuating the stillness with violent bursts of blood and destruction, Kitano weaves "Brother" through a cinematic field of landmines. You just never know when another act of savageness is going to happen, which creates a sizable tension throughout the entire piece.
And violent this film truly is. Reportedly trimmed down for its US release, "Brother" still contains multiple shootings, beheadings, a chopsticks-through-nostril impalement, and even a scene of hari-kari as a character goes to extremes to prove his loyalty. Unlike American productions, the violence is showcased without style or cynicism. Delivered in an unflinchingly point-blank manner, the barbarity hits hard and true. Of course this delivery is tough to watch, yet Kitano is savvy enough of a filmmaker to form a point out of all the bloodshed.
What drives the heart of "Brother," and ends up being its most fascinating component, is the contrast of styles between the homeboys and the yakuza. So ingrained in the popular culture is the image of the Los Angeles "gangsta" that Yamamoto's influences on the boys seems downright positive. Crime doesn't pay is the final summation of "Brother," but during its two hours, every now and again, the film made me wish all criminal organizations had the respectability and authority of the gangs in "Brother." A scary thing to consider, yet it clearly demonstrates the power of Kitano's film.
Filmfodder Grade: A-