Many have called “Outrage,” the new film by Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, a return to his roots. In some respects, that’s accurate. Like his films from the ‘90s, “Outrage” is a violent gangster flick. But beneath the surface, it has more in common with his 2003 “The Blind Swordsmen: Zatoichi,” about the iconic chambara blind swordsman. Like that film, “Outrage” is an expertly executed, thrilling action film, but this latest offering from the famed auteur takes even less risks than “Zatoichi,” and instead aims strictly at entertainment. In doing so, Kitano created something that is unlike anything he’s done before.
“Outrage” tells the story of a series of battles between mob families, carefully orchestrated by Sannokai family boss Sekiuchi (Soichiro Kitamura), to appear random. Sannokai’s Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura) manufactures conflicts to pull the unsuspecting, friendly Murase-gumi mob family into a bloody war. It’s fun watching Murase (Renji Ishibashi) and members of his gang, like Iizuka (Takashi Tsukamoto), fall into the trap laid out for them, but it’s also hard to help feeling sorry for them, particularly when they are up against the brutality of the Ikemoto family’s enforcers, Mizuno, Ishihara and Otomo, played with menacing glee by Kippei Shiina, Ryo Kase and Kitano, himself, respectively.
The fun, outsized performances in “Outrage” and the slick, functional direction stand in stark contrast to earlier Kitano works. Like his older films, this one is driven by a sense of impending doom. But while those works often used that tone to highlight both the value and the futility of enjoying life’s little things, “Outrage” instead uses it to create suspense and heighten giddy anticipation of violence (of which there is plenty). And though the old films had plenty of violence as well, it was handled in a completely different way. In “Outrage,” the acts of violence are gory and frightening, but also full of cartoonish imagination — they sort of call to mind a cross between Roald Dahl and “The Godfather.”
Kitano has stated in interviews that he intentionally set out to make a crowd-pleaser, and, if the 100 percent rating that the film enjoys on professional review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, he succeeded. And if “Outrage” — a gory spectacle in which humans deceive, prey on, and brutalize each other — is his idea of crowd-pleasing entertainment, then that may be a form of commentary in itself. If it is, it’s the only commentary he is offering. The film’s themes are (primarily) manipulation and predation, but they seem to have been chosen only for their inherent drama, as “Outrage” neither poses questions nor makes statements about them.
This is what makes “Outrage” stand out from all of Kitano’s previous films, which were thematically rich. Most of his earlier films were slow-paced and lyrical, however, I can still vividly remember characters and scenes from them, though I watched them many years ago. I watched “Outrage” more recently, and yet I don’t remember much about it — other than that it was a lot of fun. And that’s what makes this film is the perfect example of the limitations of sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which averages how many critical responses were positive or not, but doesn’t take into account to what degree the reviews were positive.
What the rating hides is that the disposable nature of “Outrage” means that while everyone agreed it was a very good film, few found it to be a great film, myself included.
“Outrage” will be screening at Landmark Theatres in the Bay Area from Dec. 9. For more information, visit www.landmarktheatres.com.