An American living in post-war Japan joins the Yakuza.
If you’ve ever seen any mobster/gangster/yakuza movie before, then you’ll probably be able to guess where this film is heading before it gets there, because this movie brings nothing new to the table at all. While visually it looks great (probably one of the better looking Netflix movies I’ve seen) there is nothing tactile beneath the surface of this polished-looking film. The film tries to put us on the outside of the action, experiencing everything from Nick’s (Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) withdrawn emotionless perspective, but as a result the film feels plodding, slow, and boring, even though plenty happens. None of the characters seem to care at all about what’s happening to anyone around them, and as a result, neither do we.
(SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW)
Nick Lowell (Leto) is scrubbing the floors in a Japanese bathhouse when a group of Yakuza walks past him; one of the Yakuza gives Nick a look that puts him on edge, and he walks back into the room the group had just left. There he finds Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asao, “Thor: Ragnarok”) hanging from the ceiling; he lifts the man up, relieving tension from the noose, and is able to save his life. Soon after, Nick is assaulted and tossed in jail by corrupt cops, who tell him he should’ve just minded his own business. Kiyoshi and Nick are placed in the same cell and the two bond. Eventually Kiyoshi is released, and through his Yakuza contacts he arranges for Nick’s release as well. Kiyoshi is indebted to Nick, and he convinces his Yakuza brothers to allow Nick a chance to prove his worth, and for the next two hours we watch Nick climb through the ranks of the Yakuza, and navigate the unfamiliar territory and culture.
The biggest issue with this film is its tendency to fall back on well-tread clichés; there are scenes when I was quite literally able to call the exact dialogue spoken before it was said, and there are other scenes when I was able to call what would happen as far as action. There are very few surprises throughout the film, because “The Outsider” feels like every other mob movie you’ve ever seen; the subplots and characters are all those that we’re familiar with, and just because the story takes place in Japan instead of Brooklyn or Hell’s Kitchen that doesn’t make the film more original.
Another big issue with this movie is its blindness to its own White Savior complex. I feel like this film tried to be culturally respectful, but as Nick climbs the ranks of the Yakuza, and he becomes more and more ingrained in their culture, the plot starts to lean in the direction of elevating Jared Leto’s character beyond just an ideal Yakuza. It starts to feel like the film is saying, “Look at how good this outsider has become, he’s better at being a Yakuza than the Yakuza.” He starts to solve their problems for them; starts to behave more honorably than them, and soon, some of the other Yakuza members begin to look at him as a leader. Now, sure, we’ve seen this kind of story happen before (think “The Last Samurai”), but in a world more frequently upset about race inequality, it’s surprising to think that this storyline of white-man-comes-in-and-fixes-your-problems-for-you didn’t raise any red flags before it was green lit.
Another huge issue with this film is that we know absolutely nothing about Nick until about forty minutes from the end of the movie. It’s implied that he was in the military, but the details are intentionally left vague until Emile Hirsch (“The Autopsy of Jane Doe”) randomly shows up and talks to Leto for five minutes, giving a lengthy expositional monologue that reveals Leto ran away from the army, and that he and Hirsch used to serve together. Hirsch threatens to report Leto, even though Leto has been missing for quite some time, but then goes back on his threats and asks Leto to have a drink with him. Leto agrees, then murders Hirsch and buries his body, and then we never come back to this plot point again. There was literally no reason to have the scene in the film. I believe what the director was trying to do was show that Leto was effectively killing his past by killing Hirsch, and by burying the body he’d fully accepted the Yakuza lifestyle and given up his other lifestyle, but the way that the scene played out was so on the nose, and so ridiculously out of place that the scene was funny instead of shocking.
However, for as much wrong as there is in this film, there are certainly some good elements. Zandvliet’s direction of the film is polished; he hides subtext in his backgrounds and symbolism in his shots, but a lot of times what he’s trying to say is pretty obvious. There isn’t much heart behind what he’s trying to say, but from a technical aspect the film looked really good. The production design was spot on; the film looked like a bigger budget epic, which is what it aspires to be but never quite accomplishes. The cinematography, too, was pretty impressive- there were a lot of really long takes where the camera follows Leto or one of the others through alleyways brimming with well-designed hustle and bustle. But, just because a film looks good, does not mean it has any substance.
There are hundreds of movies released a year, and in the end maybe a few dozen of them will be worth remembering; this is one of those that’ll be forgotten along one of time's byways. It’s got some good elements, some bad, but overall, it fails to set itself apart from the other films grappling for our attention; in a few months, this film will be utterly forgotten. This film pays homage to many of the better gangster and yakuza films that came before it, but just because something has a semblance to something great, does not inherently make the thing itself great. This film is the pale shadow cast by better films, and why would you want to watch a salute to great films when you could watch one of those great films instead?
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