After detouring into comedy and treacly sentiment with last year’s tough-guy-and-a-tyke movie, “Kikujiro,” Takeshi Kitano returns to the hard-edged gangster turf he knows best in his first predominantly English-language feature, “Brother.” But the Japanese actor-director appears to be at a creative standstill, reworking his standard themes with little of the unpredictable energy and inventive twists that have earned him a cult following. Set mainly in Los Angeles, this poorly constructed gangster thriller shows the director not entirely at home in a new environment (or with a new language), marking it as a minor entry in his often innovative body of work.
In his best films — arguably “Sonatine” and “Hana-bi” — Kitano revitalized the yakuza genre via an exciting marriage of explosively violent action with melancholy lyricism, frenetic movement with arresting stillness and sudden, unexpected cruelty with mischievous deadpan humor. Many of those elements again are brought into play in “Brother,” but the mix feels flat and the story remains a fairly banal account of underworld exploits whose emotional gears never fully engage.
Forced into exile due to his affiliation with a rival band that wiped out his boss, cool yakuza customer Yamamoto (Kitano, appearing as always under his acting alias, Beat Takeshi) travels from Tokyo to L.A. in search of his young half-brother Ken (Claude Maki).
Unable to speak English and culturally adrift in strange surroundings, Yamamoto sets about tracking Ken down but first encounters hostile homeboy Denny (Omar Epps), planting a broken bottle in his face when the guy tries to extort cash from him. When Yamamoto does find Ken, he discovers that Denny is one of a group of black thugs running a drug ring with his brother.
Kitano’s approach to editing has rarely been linear, but the exposition here is borderline chaotic and the script’s story sense fails to solidify in any satisfying way throughout Yamamoto’s swift, often amusing rise to power. This is achieved through moments of brutal, cartoonish violence as the immaculately outfitted Tokyo emigre — sharp goodfella threads are by Japanese-style guru Yohji Yamamoto — impulsively takes on the band’s suppliers and then their rivals before teaming with slick young Little Tokyo ruler Shirase (Masaya Kato) and unwisely going up against the Italians.
Kitano frequently tips his hat to the American gangster movie in Coppola-styled scenes of confrontation and carnage. But while many of the action set pieces are enlivened by the director’s customary verve and humor, the plot advances clumsily with the narrative engine continually sputtering and stopping. Characters are so unsatisfyingly developed that the film delivers only on a basic level as a tale of gangster rivalry, greed, elimination and expansion, with its larger themes struggling to register.
One of the principal reasons is the script’s erratic attention to the Yamamoto-Denny bond. Despite the shaky start, their association blossoms into an understated but mutually respectful friendship, but this is never made into a central concern in Kitano’s screenplay, aside from belatedly in the more interesting final act in which Epps for the first time is given the chance to create a character.
Here too, however, well-trodden Kitano themes resurface with less resonance than in the past: the cathartic journey to the sea; the gangster’s encroaching awareness of his mortality. Registering here as more of an icon than a fully formed character, Kitano seems to be playing his now-familiar, taciturn killing machine with a sense of humor by rote.
Other performances are adequate, though the director’s handle on actors working in English seems uncertain. Kitano himself has only a few words of English dialogue.
Reportedly budgeted at $10 million, “Brother” is full of elegant compositions and poised, deliberate camera movement but rarely matches the visual impact of earlier Kitano features. Flat, drab lighting is especially disappointing given the bracing colors brought to “Kikujiro” by lenser Katsumi Yanagijima, who shot both films. As in “Kikujiro,” composer Joe Hisaishi’s incongruously tinkly piano-bar music seems a jarring miscalculation.