As with American gangster films, yakuza-themed movies have long been a staple of Japanese cinema. But they rarely achieve significant exposure on American shores, for obvious (subtitles) reasons. Thus provides the impetus for Netflix’s production of an ultra-violent yakuza film starring Jared Leto as a gaijin, or outsider, who becomes a trusted member of the Japanese underworld in the 1950s. Designed to offer Western audiences the opportunity to see a Caucasian movie star, and a heartthrob one at that, in an unusual genre setting, The Outsider rarely manages to rise above its audience-baiting concept.
Directed by Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet (presumably, no Japanese helmers were available), the film centers on Nick (Leto), a former American soldier who for reasons strangely unrevealed has been in an Osaka prison since the end of the war. When Nick helps a fellow inmate, Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano), escape from prison via a deliberately failed suicide attempt, the yakuza-connected gangster repays him by inducting him into the organization upon his own release.
The knives are sharp, the movie is dull.
Despite his outsider status, the taciturn Nick quickly fits in well with the yakuza and their highly formal, albeit deadly, customs. Proving himself by dealing with a racist American businessman (Rory Cochrane, making the most of his brief screen time) in cahoots with a rival gang by nearly bludgeoning him to death with a typewriter, Nick is outfitted with a sharp black suit and his own apartment. Nick warmly embraces the yakuza culture by getting elaborate tattoos on his back and even more warmly embracing Kiyoshi’s beautiful younger sister (Shioli Kutsuna), with whom he begins a romantic relationship. He also proves his loyalty to his new bosses by participating in the time-honored ritual of slicing off his own fingers to make up for a mistake, managing not to even flinch in the process.
Although Nick’s gaijin status is frequently referred to in disparaging terms, the film blandly scripted by Andrew Baldwin (The Take) doesn’t handle its premise in particularly interesting fashion. Nick is so readily accepted into the yakuza’s ranks that there’s little dramatic tension. The character is little more than a cipher, with so little revealed about him that it becomes hard to sustain interest in his fate. A provocative episode late in the film, involving Nick’s fateful encounter with a fellow ex-GI (Emile Hirsch) who recognizes him from the war, results in a shocking bit of violence but fails to provide any insight about Nick’s past or his motivations.
This deliberate ambiguity might have been more acceptable if Leto had delivered a more nuanced performance. But the Oscar-winning actor, although exuding an undeniably cool screen presence, opts for such a minimalist style here that his unwavering inexpressiveness become almost comical. In contrast to his boring portrayal are the compelling turns by several of the supporting players, especially Asano as Nick’s mentor and Kippei Shiina as a gang member who was once involved with Kiyoshi’s sister himself and doesn’t take kindly to the new interloper.
Merging standard gangster movie clichés of both the Japanese and American variety, The Outsider only manages to be ultra-violent and ultra-dull simultaneously. The glacially paced film is beautifully photographed and features impeccable production and costume design, but it strains so mightily for seriousness that it verges on self-parody.
Production companies: Linson Entertainment, Waypoint Entertainment
Cast: Jared Leto, Tadanobu Asano, Kippei Shiina, Shioli Kutsuna, Emile Hirsch, Raymond Nicholson, Rory Cochrane, Nao Omori, Min Tanaka
Director: Martin Zandvliet
Screenwriter: Andrew Baldwin
Producers: Art Linson, Kenneth Kao, John Linson
Executive producer: Satch Watanable
Director of photography: Camilla Hjelm
Production design: Gitte Malling
Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen
Casting: Ko Iwagami