Right. You cannot look away. Don’t we all have a fascination with revenge on the one hand, and the internecine battles between hoodlums, mobsters, gangsters, assorted members of Organized Crime families, and even the Yakuza, on the other hand. We can’t say with certainty that films like the Charles Bronson Death Wish series or The Godfather trilogy started the trend, or that The Sopranos made killing so fashionably entertaining, sorry – fascinating. But we can use those visual mediums as the mileposts on the long highway of cinematic and broadcast mayhem.
Michael Caine who most of us have come to love in his various incarnations over his more than 50 years as an actor in films, has played many kinds of roles – like a spy (The Ipcress File), a ladies’ man (Alfie), a gangster (Get Carter) or even a gentlemanly con-man (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) to name but a few of his most iconic and memorable, now appears as the titular character in Harry Brown.
Caine/Brown plays a British ex-marine living out his retirement years in South London in what they call an estate in the film. We might call it an apartment block, or even more accurately – a housing project. Not too long into the film, we learn that Harry is a brand new widower, and then, he’s going to lose his best and only friend to the neighborhood ‘kids’, and that the neighborhood is going bad, and quickly.
So Harry whose life was a daily pint or two of ale and a quiet game of chess with his buddy at the local pub … now has lost even that. From his direct view of the goings on from his 3rd story flat – the picture is decidedly bleak. But the film posters and the taglines tell us everything we need to know about what will happen:
- Every man has a breaking point.
- The law has limits. He doesn’t.
- One man will take a stand.
So when the police have to release the gang that killed his friend, Leonard Attwell, due to evidence that Attwell had a weapon of his own – a bayonet – and the boys could claim self-defense, that’s enough to set Harry into motion. I shouldn’t have to tell you that he is going to lay waste to some of the planet’s worst ever young men. And we are going to love it.
While Harry is not quite shooting ‘fish in a barrel’, he has a few advantages over his targets: his training as marine, and the fact that they’ll never expect him to have a weapon much less a set of skills to go with it.
But Director Daniel Barber has made a few turns away from the Death Wish plot. First of all Harry and or his wife are not victims of the neighborhood. They’re merely residents and witnesses. Harry does have an ally on the police force – a female detective: D.I. Alice Frampton played by Emily Mortimer, and she’s nothing at all like Vincent Gardenia‘s detective who pursued Bronson. Finally, this neighborhood is far bleaker than Bronson’s turf.
Getting back to the ‘you cannot look away’. Harry has just shot a drug/gun dealer in his own lair. He stands over this young man who has a gaping wound at his waist. Harry says to this lad who had dead aim on Harry, but his weapon jammed:
You failed to maintain your weapon, Son. I don’t reckon you’ve got long. Seen that before. Gut wound. The slug’s probably torn right through your liver. Mate of mine in Ulster got caught in sniper fire. Bullet blew his inside out. He screamed for a good 10 minutes. We couldn’t send a medic in, the section was too hot. So we all took cover… and watched him die. I’ve never told that… to anyone… you should’ve called an ambulance… for the girl…
And with that, Harry sends this bad guy to his maker. Barber had positioned his camera to give us the P.O.V. of the guy on the ground, so we are looking up at Harry as he’s going to fire the kill shot. Damn if it wasn’t thrilling. You knew it was coming. Not only did you not look away, but it was almost a reason to celebrate when he fired the gun.
What does that say about us – as film viewers? While you are pondering that, what was Barber’s message about his London Police force who comes off as ineffectual, misguided, misdirected, and useless, except for D.I. Frampton who was transferred out of the jurisdiction by her superior officer two thirds of the way into the film?
Takeshi Kitano is back with another in his Yakuza oeuvre of films. This film is from 2010 but is about to open in a limited release across the USA beginning December 2nd. In this one called Outrage, in which Kitano is the writer, director, and star, he has decided to skip anything at all that might be considered fun, family, or as familiar as going out in Tokyo for a bowl of Ramen noodles. Sorry – there was a scene that began in a restaurant that served noodles but that scene ended with someone’s fingers floating in the noodle bowl.
Kitano has decided that the whole Yakuza experience is nothing more than the human equivalent of the most deadly King of the Hill game you’ve ever seen. From the lowest members of a Yakuza family, who are the button men or soldiers (the drivers don’t count), to the very top of the mountain where the Chairman holds forth – we see nothing but a supreme battle for power. Loyalties are constantly shifting. Your sworn brother today is your executioner tomorrow. And someone else is waiting to take care of him on the day after.
We start with a summit of one large crime family. There’s a long line of limos and black-suited chauffeurs. We hear that Murase family has been doing a bit of drug business and that the Chairman isn’t pleased. So he instructs the Ikemoto family to set up an office on the Murase turf and begin to annoy and bother them.
An Ikemoto guy runs up a huge tab in a Murase night club in one night (600,000 Yen). He then claims he doesn’t have the money on him. The Murase’s demand payment but then are embarrassed when they send a couple of low-level guys out to collect and find out that the guy was with the Ikemotos. An apology is necessary as well as the money being returned. But this meeting gets out of control fast, and the Murase lieutenant gets beaten up, and loses enough face that he’s required to cut off his pinky.
Remarkably and easily, that was the first violent episode of the film and it was also the softest scene of any that were violent in the whole film. From there, the Chairman manipulates everyone, including Kitano who plays Otomo who is an enforcer but a low-level one.
Kitano looks like he could play a heavy in any country despite his Japanese appearance. His face looks like a boxing glove. He’s going to kill a number of people in this film, including Murase who he shoots in a sauna, and the only time he smiles is when he’s laughing in the face of an opponent just after calling him an asshole.
So slowly, the body count rises. Soon it’s not slowly. Not only does the body count rise, but the frequency increases exponentially as well. We have plotting then killing, and each time, the plotting takes less time in order to devote more time to the execution.
At least in The Sopranos, there were family moments like when Tony Soprano strangled a gangland rat in between visiting Bates College and Bowdoin College with his daughter. Wives and children were supposed to be excluded from the assassinations. In Outrage, there’s not one role that works out positively for a woman. But that’s not all. The Ambassador from Ghana is set up as a patsy with a murdered girl. Before you know it, the Yakuza has decided to make the Ghanaian Embassy into a gambling casino. And they do.
When the Ambassador complains about his cut – and threatens to go to the police, they remind him with an ominous warning – ‘You do know that you are dealing with the Yakuza, right?’
But what happens is that the killing becomes the only leitmotif of the film. There’s no end to it. You’d think that these nitwits would catch on – that they’re being used. That eventually even the executioners will be executed. Takashi Kitano has delivered a film that is so nihilistic, and so bleak, that these power struggles become pointless. As you watch, you know well in advance about who the next victim will be. The only question is the ‘how’.
‘Why’ is no longer a part of the equation. You can substitute next for ‘when’. So the film loses its impact as well as you lose your interest. Kitano does deliver a few striking shots. The only character in the film who smiles is the police detective who collects his weekly envelope of Yen.
It is a bleak world for these Yakuza. Upward mobility exists only up to the point when it stops because you just took a bullet between your eyes. As for we folks who choose to watch this film, I think I can say that this is not one of Kitano’s best efforts. But despite that, and despite the fact that the film is an end to end bullets and blood epic, you aren’t able to take your eyes off the screen. Simply, you cannot look away.