Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano. Starring Beat Takeshi, Kippei Shina, Ryo Kase, Tomokazu Miura and Jun Kunimura. Rated R. Running time: 109 minutes.
Takeshi Kitano is a weird cultural figure, even for Japan; a beloved comedic actor and goofy talk show fixture by day, and an intense, art-house film director by night. It's as if Bill Murray and Lars Von Trier were trapped in the same body. After a decade of experimenting, including a bizarre pop-music-fueled take on the blind swordsman Zatoichi, Kitano has returned to the sort of stylish, blood-drenched crime dramas that originally earned him an international cult following.
As an actor he's billed as "Beat Takeshi" in tribute to the beatniks, and has adopted an onscreen persona as a sort of stone-faced, eternal hipster gargoyle, which helps cover the mild palsy which lingers from a 1994 bike accident. He's back to playing the same archetype here, as Otomo, a jaded Yakuza underboss with an outmoded sense of loyalty not shared by his fellow hoods. He's gotten caught up in a massive gang war, based on some sort of trivial insult, which touches off a gory daisy chain of retaliation, seemingly without end.
At the top of the heap is the mildly bemused elder called "The Chairman" (Soichiro Kitamura), the king thug who sports a wardrobe that seems to have come from the "Kim Jong Il" casual collection. This white sweatsuit-clad pasha sits around his mansion and safely assesses the carnage, waiting for the strongest of his underlings and rivals to emerge from the bloodbath.
The movie opens with a huge banquet room full of crooks; by the end, the survivors could gather around a card table. Hordes of tattooed, shiny suit-wearing goons are dispatched, in a myriad of interesting ways, and tabbing up the body count is the film's principal charm. The weapons used include chopsticks, meat cleavers, a dentist drill, and even one decapitation via a luxury sedan. Kitano seems to amuse himself by inventing new ways to rub out characters that we hardly know or care about, which seems to be the point. These flavorless robots all operate under the same fading code of loyalty and ethics, though each is more forcefully driven by greed and arrogance.
This could be read as Kitano's kiss-off to the genre, his ultimate statement on the stupid, pointless blood lust of human nature, but the movie is so short of emotion or depth it falls far short of his more personal classics like Fireworks (Hana-Bi), and this is certainly not in the league of Eastwood's Unforgiven. Sometimes violence is just violence for its own sake.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 27-28, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 29.