The body count holds steady but the bloodshed is considerably easier to take in “Outrage Beyond,” the rigorously controlled if excessively labyrinthine sequel to Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage.” Reassembling the few surviving characters of that 2010 gorefest for another round of viciously petty yakuza warfare, the Japanese action aesthete plays it cool and smooth in a picture that exerts a steadily tightening grip, though not until after a first hour of near-impenetrable gangster gab that may leave the uninitiated feeling stranded. Expect solid biz in Asian territories and more specialized returns beyond.
Last seen being stabbed in prison at the end of “Outrage,” professional killing machine Otomo (Kitano, aka Beat Takeshi) turns out to be very much alive, though rather less than enthused about being dragged back into the fray for more face-smashing, finger-slicing shenanigans. Perhaps as a gesture of sympathy, Kitano the writer-director largely withholds any substantial mayhem until well into the picture; when the violence does hit, it’s far less baroque and more constricted this time around, albeit just as carefully and beautifully choreographed.
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Bigger, slicker and more corporate than before, the Tokyo-based Sanno crime family maintains a secret underworld alliance with the nearby Hanabishi clan. In an attempt to crack down on organized crime, calculating Det. Kataoka (Fumiyo Kohinata) seeks to turn the two powerful syndicates against each other, primarily by undermining Sanno chairman Kato (Tomokazu Miura). He also contrives to spring that family’s old nemesis, Otomo, from prison, actions that have particularly unnerving consequences for Sanno underboss Ishihara (Ryo Kase).
It’s typical of Kitano’s cynically bemused sensibility that Kataoka comes across as a meddlesome troublemaker in a world where cops are scarcely less corrupt than crooks, as evidenced by a scene in which an officer more or less beats a thug’s confession out of him with the aid of a nearby ashtray. As various perceived slights, misunderstandings and power grabs multiply among the top Sanno and Hanabishi leaders, the film continually cuts back to Kataoka in his office, functioning as an annoying one-man Greek chorus as he explains his clever chess moves for the benefit of his colleagues and the audience.
And a good thing, too, as the narrative confusion that often overtook “Outrage” is similarly in evidence here. Much of the film consists of men in suits shouting thick, exposition-heavy threats at each other in darkened interiors, or else firing gunshots at their enemies’ invariably sleek, black automobiles, and Kitano seems disinclined to distinguish much between sides or simplify the intricate and ritualistic codes by which these mobsters operate.
It’s a monotonous, oppressive world by design, appointed with spare precision by Norihiro Isoda and lensed in studiously underlit widescreen tableaux by Katsumi Yanagijima. The overall formal elegance extends to the meticulous manner in which bodies are blocked and choreographed within the frame, whether standing stiff-backed or keeling over. But too much of what unfolds here simply doesn’t reward prolonged scrutiny; the film is essentially a slow-motion deathtrap in which the wall-to-wall chatter feels like a joyless, too-leisurely distraction from the inevitable bloodletting.
But the narrative haze clears eventually, and the action-dialogue ratio balances out with a succession of swift, punchy setpieces. The aforementioned finger-slicing tradition gets a delicious spin, and baseball fans will relish the fate of one particularly unlucky customer. Somehow, the film manages to deliver the requisite payoffs without tilting over into graphic sadism (“Outrage’s” dentist drill has been replaced with a power drill here, but the ensuing splatter is carefully kept offscreen). More than one sequence achieves its grisly impact primarily through Yoshifumi Kureishi’s bang-bang, squelch-squelch sound design.
Also doing their part to energize the proceedings are a few key actors among the film’s large, almost exclusively male ensemble. As the Sanno chiefs who find themselves cut off at the knees, Miura and Kase register a furious, spluttering impotence. Hideo Nakano again makes a strong impression as a scar-faced thug who finds himself teaming up with Otomo, despite their unpleasant shared history; and Shigeru Koyama, perpetually clad in traditional Japanese robes as one of the Hanabishi’s old guard, exudes malevolence from behind a steely countenance. But it’s Kitano who remains the most memorable figure here, a demon of death shown to brook no nonsense in the film’s blunt, perfect final scene.