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O, Brother, Why Art Thou? 

Something's missing here. Maybe it's because I've never seen a Yakuza (Japanese mob) film, of which writer-director Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is purportedly the master. But if this American debut by Kitano is supposed to be representative of the wildly popular Japanese film genre ... well, maybe something got lost in the translation. Filled with boatloads of violence and "brotherhood of man" posturing, Brother takes an interesting theme and then loses all interest in itself roughly midway through the film.

Kitano (Hana-Bi, Violent Cop) directs himself (referred to in the credits as "Beat" Takeshi) as Yamamoto, a member of the Japanese Yakuza who through a series of mishaps is exiled to America for his own protection. Yamamoto ­ otherwise known as "Aniki," Japanese for brother ­ lands in Los Angeles and all hell breaks loose. That's because Aniki isn't really a human being; he's a force of nature, a conscience-free act of sheer criminal will and, to another degree, honor. The Yakuza, after all, are known as a fiercely loyal and determined (and very violent) bunch ­ where sacrificing a finger seems like an everyday cover charge. (It's amazing any of these guys can pick up a beer with one hand, with all the slicing and dicing that goes on here.)

But in a world of bad-asses, Aniki is the bad-assest. He rips through everything and everyone in his path with a deadpan expression interrupted only by the occasional smirk that barely cracks from one corner of his mouth. It's almost a nervous tic that seems to be tugging at him like a peep of guilt, which he of course ignores, one dead body after another. Back in Japan, his laser focus on destruction got him into trouble in the first place; you couldn't help get the feeling he was either going to be a king or a corpse over there.

When he comes to America, he evokes the same vibe as he reunites with his younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki). Even though he's been given a second lease on life in exile, Aniki simply can't help himself. So as he forms his own brotherhoods through both blood and allegiance, he and his American-style Yakuza (as much a melting pot as L.A. itself) blast their way up the ladder of organized crime until they run into the buzz-saw that is the Mafia. Even as he meets his ultimate fate, Aniki just keeps on destroying; it's the only thing that's truly pure to him.

Except, perhaps, for his appreciation for brotherhood, which, fittingly enough, he finds in a "brother." (An obvious choice by Takeshi here.) While he comes to America in his search for his half-brother, it is through Denny (Omar Epps) that Aniki seems to find his real brother. They meet in dubious circumstances; as he's looking for his half-brother, Aniki literally runs into a jacked-up Denny, whose American ranting Aniki doesn't understand -- so he jabs his eye out with a broken bottle. That's one way to pick your relatives. They later run into each other again -- Denny and Ken turn out to be partners in crime -- and everyone joins forces to attempt a burgeoning takeover of L.A.'s criminal landscape.

The bigger they get, the less interesting Brother becomes. The bond between Aniki and Denny becomes sealed basically in blood and games; as usual, much of it is unspoken. But as Aniki's gang soars skyward toward its ultimate glory or doom -- and just everyone can figure out which it's going to be -- there's nothing much to do but calculate the body count.

Now, to make things clear, body counts ain't so bad. Cinematic violence can be a beautiful thing, as author Jake Horsley argued in his two-volume book, The Blood Poets: A Cinema of Savagery 1958-1999. Violence taps into our primal instincts, Horsley wrote, and watching violence can often provide us with a cathartic exercise where the actors on screen basically do all our dirty work for us. Or, more simply, watching guys kick ass is just really fun to watch, one slow-mo death after another. Long as we all remember it's make-believe.

But, damn, besides sheer variety, Takeshi doesn't seem to know what else to do with this film. Once you chart the trajectory, the whole thing's figured out. No mystery, no symbolism, even the acting's rather bland. Even Takeshi's smirk gets old after a while.

We've seen the singularity of a criminal before, whether it's in The Godfather or either Scarface version, but unlike its peers, Brother doesn't have much to offer beyond its macho posing and cultural mixing. All this is a shame, considering that Kitano's Japanese films carry a tremendous reputation overseas; it almost sounds like he's the Akira Kurosawa of the Yakuza film. It's too bad his American debut doesn't seem to have the same zip. Maybe it's all relative.

click to enlarge Deadpan dead man: Aniki ('Beat' Takeshi, middle) leads henchmen Ken (Claude Maki) and Denny (Omar Epps) through a maze of gang-style violence in Takeshi's Brother.
  • Deadpan dead man: Aniki ('Beat' Takeshi, middle) leads henchmen Ken (Claude Maki) and Denny (Omar Epps) through a maze of gang-style violence in Takeshi's Brother.
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