Combustible Celluloid
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With: "Beat" Takeshi, Omar Epps, James Shigeta, Claude Maki, Tetsuya Watari
Written by: Takeshi Kitano
Directed by: Takeshi Kitano
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong violence, language and brief nudity
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 113
Date: 30/01/2001

Brother (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

He Ain't Heavy...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

If a conventional action movie registers somewhere around 5 or 6, Takeshi Kitano's Japanese gangster movies propel from 0 to 10 in the blink of an eye.

In a scene from the new film Brother, a few bad guys hold Takeshi at gunpoint in the back seat of a car. Takeshi's mesmerizing, weathered face is still and grim, as always. Suddenly, he bats the gun away from his head, it discharges and kills the driver, and in less than fifteen seconds he's taken care of the other thugs and walks away from the now-crashed car. No music, no extended grunting and wrestling over the gun. Clean and simple.

Takeshi Kitano writes and directs under his full name and acts under his nickname, "Beat" Takeshi, taken from his old comedy days. Brother marks Takeshi's ninth film as director and his American filmmaking debut, but it still registers as one of his own, personal -- and very Japanese -- films. No sellout here.

In Brother, Takeshi plays Yamamoto, a gangster forced to flee Japan after his powerful mob boss is assassinated. He travels to L.A. and meets up with his half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), who has become completely enmeshed as an American drug dealer. Perhaps out of pride, perhaps out of boredom, Yamamoto quickly dispenses with the small-time drug stuff and elevates the little gang into a highly paid drug empire. But when the gang grows out of control and decides to take on Italian gangsters, chances of survival become slim.

The title has several meanings. Ken is only Yamamoto's half-brother, and for whatever reason the two never really make a connection. Instead, Yamamoto bonds with Ken's comrade-in-arms Denny (Omar Epps), a black man and a "brother" in another sense. In addition, Denny refers to Yamamoto as "aniki," the Japanese word for, you guessed it, "brother." Family is where you find it, the movie seems to say.

The two connect most concretely after Epps returns to the hideout one night and finds a thug holding a gun to Yamamoto's head. Epps manages to shoot the thug, but also accidentally shoots Yamamoto. Fortunately, Yamamoto survives, and once he recovers, the two begin joking around together.

And in fact, as the movie goes along, the scenes Takeshi and Epps share begin to resonate even more than the action scenes. The early, exciting scenes show a John Wayne-action movie coolness in which Takeshi causally wipes out all opposing forces. He saunters into the back office of a pool hall, shoots everyone in the room except the head guy behind a desk, then takes a moment to offer the gun to Denny, "I'll give you ten bucks if you can get this guy in one shot."

But after the fun escalates into a full-scale war, Yamamoto regresses into a passive role, grimly accepting his fate, knowing that his tiny, amusing snowball has now grown into a life-threatening boulder. This makes the final third of the film seem more like melancholy dead weight.

Or does it? Yamamoto tries to speed up the proceedings by kidnapping an Italian mob boss, taking him to the beach, and humiliating him a bit before simply letting him go. Brother differs from the usual Kitano form by not taking a "time out" before the final showdown; a scene in which Takeshi and his men hide out and play games while the heat cools. Here, Takeshi seems to be saying, "why bother?" and skips over that part to the ending. (In fact, the film's final line comes from an Asian diner cook who, after failing to make conversation with Yamamoto, mutters, "You Japanese are so inscrutable.")

Many viewers have resisted this more downbeat Kitano, but that's where Epps comes in. Though their scenes together are far from the usual back-slapping "I love you, man!" locker-room escapades, they still resonate with a powerful, unspoken camaraderie. In a way, Yamamoto invests his future in this young man. As we see him driving away in the film's final shot, Denny inherits Kitano's legacy and says goodbye with perhaps the first real tears ever shed in a Kitano film. In other words, a great artist takes another step toward emotional maturity.

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