By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
After the big budget Mute and Bright turned out to be, respectively, a disappointing misfire and an unmitigated disaster, Netflix now unveil The Outsider, and unfortunately their run of expensive failures continues.
Set in post-war Japan, circa 1954, Jared Leto stars as Nick Lowell, a U.S. soldier who is now languishing in prison, an outcast among the local populace. Thin and bearded, Nick keeps to himself, but attracts attention when he saves fellow inmate Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) from rival yakuza members. Owing a debt to his foreign saviour, Kiyoshi organises a plan to get them both out of their harsh environment, and it’s a scheme that proves successful.
Disconnected from his own country and fellow soldiers, Nick accepts an offer to join the Shiramatsu gang, where Kiyoshi is an important member. Reluctantly taken in by boss Akihiro (Min Tanaka), and viewed with suspicious eyes by the high-ranking Orochi (Kippei Shina), Nick learns the ropes remarkably fast, but threatens his friendship with Kiyoshi by starting a romance with his younger sister Miyu (Shioli Kutsuna), in a subplot that seems quite similar to the one in Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).
Chaos and violence become the order of the day when Shiramatsu are forced into a turf war with rival gang Seizu, run by Hiromitsu (Nao Omori), who want to take over the profitable Osaka port. Hiromitsu, whose father had a gentlemen’s agreement with Akihiro, isn’t interested in the old way of doing things, but rather wants everything that the industrial rebuilding the country is going through has to offer.
Nick has to deal with the internal fighting happening within his own gang, confront Kiyoshi about his growing relationship with Miyu, and protect his new love from the violent world he has decided to exist in.
The Outsider is a mess from the very beginning. With a wealth of material to explore, screenwriter Andrew Baldwin (who penned the 2016 action flick The Take with Idris Elba) instead focuses on every cliché connected to the crime thriller, while also viewing Japan via every stereotype audiences have seen in the movies. It’s about as culturally and historically insightful as Memoirs of a Geisha, and Baldwin seems to show no interest in the substantial changes happening not only in Japan, but around the world, and what Leto’s character could have symbolised. This complete lack of depth makes the whole white-guy-in-a-foreign-land scenario appear stale and dated.
Baldwin’s script is pure, unadulterated pulp, the filmic equivalent of a cheap crime paperback. But instead of giving us a vividly detailed locale populated by colourful individuals, Baldwin keeps everything utterly superficial, supplying characters with little or no backstory, causing the viewer to quickly lose interest in the overly familiar plot.
Compounding this problem is Martin Zandvliet (who helmed the Oscar nominated war drama Land of Mine), who directs the trashy material as if it were The Godfather (an assassination montage, as well as the film’s ending are very reminiscent of the Coppola classics), but all this manages to do is make everything even more laughable and hollow. The lethargic pace and overlength also doesn’t help proceedings.
Leto is simply abysmal as Nick, showing no emotional nuance, personality, or even the slightest hint of a character arc. A man of few words and dressed slickly in a black suit, Leto seems to be trying to channel Alain Delon from Le Samurai (or maybe even a moody soul from one of Johnnie To’s films), but has neither the charisma or presence to pull it off. Sure the script gives him nothing to work with, but Leto’s flatline interpretation is excruciating.
The Japanese cast fare better, but are also hamstrung by Baldwin’s second-rate script. Asano (Maborosi, Ichi the Killer, The Taste of Tea, Kabei: Our Mother), who was so good in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, at least offers a performance, but the perfunctory role never allows this talented actor to truly shine. Shina (Outrage, Assassination Classroom 1 and 2, 64 Part 1 and 2) has fun as Orochi, and gives the film its liveliest moments; Omori (The Ravine of Goodbye, R100, Ichi the Killer, Fish Story) is relaxed during his limited screen time; Tanaka (The Tale of Iya, The Eternal Zero, Blade of the Immortal) is convincing as Akihiro; and Australian born Kutsuna (Petal Dance, the 2013 remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) is suitably alluring as Miyu.
The film’s major saving grace is the gorgeous cinematography by Camilla Hjelm, who also lensed Zandvliet’s Land of Mine. While the story and the people that fill it may seem wafer thin, the images remain painterly and pretty, and it’s thanks to Hjelm’s stylish work that we are able to maintain any interest at all.
Hollywood in the past has managed to look at Japanese culture in an absorbing, respectful fashion, with notable highlights being Joshua Logan’s Sayonara (1957), with Marlon Brando, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza (1975), starring Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura, and Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters (1985), starring Ken Ogata, but The Outsider is exceedingly subpar when compared to these intelligent, memorable efforts.
Given Baldwin’s pulpy sensibilities, The Outsider could have been a brisk, atmospheric outing in the mould of Ridley Scott’s 1989 hit Black Rain, but Zandvliet seems totally unaware of the possibilities, thinking he is bringing something substantial and literate to the screen. At least Scott was fully aware of the formulaic trappings in the script handed to him, so alternately brought tremendous energy and style to his production, utilising the Japanese locations to maximum effect. Scott, as opposed to Zandvliet, was thankfully blessed with a terrific central performance, on that occasion by Oscar winner Michael Douglas.
Lacking the angry, post-war sentiment which laced the films of the late Kinji Fukasaku (Battles Without Honour and Humanity series, Battle Royale), and missing the revisionist, absurdist wit that runs through many of the yakuza movies made by actor/writer/director Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi, Brother, Outrage trilogy), The Outsider inadvertently lives up to its name.
Uninterested in properly exploring its potentially fascinating subject matter, but also clueless in its ability to have fun with the comic book script that has eventuated, The Outsider ends up being both pointless and worthless. Knowing that the film was originally going to be directed by the prolific Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer, Blade of the Immortal), who would have had a ball turning every cliché violently on its head, and star Tom Hardy, a much better actor who would have given a far more impactful performance, shows what a missed opportunity this really is.