You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Outsider’

Jared Leto's American yakuza film is a clueless misfire.


Jared Leto, Tadanobu Asano, Kippei Shiina, Shioli Kutsuna, Emile Hirsch, Rory Cochrane, Nao Omori, Min Tanaka


2 hours

With debates raging over Hollywood’s abysmal record of inclusion and representation, and the thunderous success of “Black Panther” decisively dispelling some long-held industry myths about audiences’ reluctance to buy into films driven by nonwhite characters, the current cultural climate is perhaps not quite an ideal one for the release of “The Outsider,” a Netflix original film that tackles Japan’s secretive criminal underworld entirely through the eyes of an American played by Jared Leto. But then, if not for the film’s tone-deaf premise, there would be little reason to talk about it at all. Dull, flavorless, and fundamentally incurious, “The Outsider” is a clueless misfire, the cinematic equivalent of a study-abroad student showing off the kanji forearm tattoo whose meaning he never bothered to learn.

While the concept would probably raise red flags no matter what, it’s possible to imagine a film about an American yakuza interloper making interesting use of that unusual premise. “The Outsider” is set in the 1950s, a pivotal, dramatic era for U.S.-Japanese relations, when post-occupation Japan began to rebuild itself from the ruins of WWII into a hypermodern industrial superpower. Given an adventurous craftsman at the helm, there would seem to be plenty of fertile historical subtexts there for the picking. Before attracting Leto and director Martin Zandvliet, “The Outsider” was set to be directed by outlaw Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, with Tom Hardy in the lead role – slogging through the thin gruel that was made in their absence, one has plenty of time to try to imagine what could have been.

But as for the version of this film that actually exists, “The Outsider” features Leto as Nick, a taciturn former U.S. serviceman with a shadowy past, first introduced as an inmate in a Japanese prison. While on janitorial duty, he saves the life of a gangster named Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) who had been strung up to die by a rival gang. This good Samaritan act earns Nick a savage beating from the guards, but Kiyoshi is honor-bound to repay his kindness; in return for helping him escape, Kiyoshi promises to make it worth Nick’s while.

Once released from prison, Nick is ferried away to meet his new ally’s “family,” a cadre of steely eyed, sharply dressed gangsters who run Osaka’s various underground economies. They offer Nick a one-off job helping convince a local American businessman to give them better terms – played by Rory Cochrane, the character exists only to run through a litany of anti-Japanese racial slurs, making it more palatable when Nick subsequently bludgeons him with a typewriter – and with almost ludicrous speed, Nick becomes the gang’s non-Japanese-speaking enforcer.

Written by Andrew Baldwin, “The Outsider” exhibits no real conversance with the yakuza tradition, nor Japanese culture in general, beyond what one could learn from a skim through Wikipedia. From kabuki theater to sake-drinking rituals to seppuku to a round of yubitsume finger-chopping, the film seems intent on hitting all of the most obvious Japanese signifiers save for sumo wrestling … and then it features a long sumo wrestling scene. And while various members of the gang are dismissive if not hostile toward their newest member, rarely does the film show any interest in how a language-challenged American might theoretically interact with this world.

It doesn’t help that Nick is among the least engaging cinematic protagonists in recent memory. Leto and Zandvliet seem to be shooting for a cross between Alain Delon’s Jef Costello and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, but they miss the cool mystique of those characters entirely, and take only their blank inexpressiveness. We don’t know how Nick found himself in Japan or ended up in prison, how he feels about his brothers in crime, why he’s so skilled at murdering people, what he’s thinking during his long stretches of staring pensively into the middle-distance, or whether he likes the slim tailored suits he gets to wear. (The suits, in addition to Camilla Hjelm’s coolly expressive cinematography, provide the film’s only consistent visual pleasures.) We do understand it when he falls in love with Kiyoshi’s sister Miyu (Shioli Kutsuna), however, if only because she’s the only woman in the entire film with more than a single line of dialogue.

But even here the film’s bizarre aversion to following through on its most obvious narrative conflicts leads it down one blind alley after another. Kiyoshi warns Nick to stop seeing his sister – he doesn’t, but suffers no real consequences for the betrayal. Shortly thereafter, we learn that Nick’s most antagonistic rival in the gang (Kippei Shiina) is also Miyu’s former lover, and this too has little payoff. What we’re left with instead is a procession of tough guys staring at each other, interspersed with sporadic stabbings, shootings and dismemberments that are staged for maximum gore and minimum impact.

The film becomes such a slog in its middle stretch that the cultural landmines of its premise almost disappear from view, only to resurface when Nick has an entertainingly insane run-in with a former military comrade (Emile Hirsch). As Nick’s gang edges toward a war with an usurper clan from Kobe – who, hilariously, have their own token American member whose existence is never remarked upon – “The Outsider” takes a decisive turn for the problematic, ending with a final shot that places it firmly in the ignoble white-savior tradition of “The Last Samurai” and “Dances With Wolves.” It may make viewers angry, but by that point, most viewers will almost be glad to feel anything at all.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Outsider'

Reviewed at Netflix screening room, Los Angeles, March 7, 2018.

Production: A Netflix presentation of a Linson Entertainment, Waypoint Entertainment production. Produced by Art Linson, John Linson, Kenneth Kao. Executive producer, Satch Watanabe.

Crew: Directed by Martin Zandvliet. Screenplay: Andrew Baldwin. Camera (color): Camilla Hjelm. Editor: Mikkel E.G. Nielsen.


Jared Leto, Tadanobu Asano, Kippei Shiina, Shioli Kutsuna, Emile Hirsch, Rory Cochrane, Nao Omori, Min Tanaka


More Film

  • A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

    Film Review: 'A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon'

    No asteroids are hurtling toward Earth in “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon,” though a flying frozen pizza does softly slice the top off an elderly shopper’s hairdo: That’s roughly the level of quirky peril we’re talking about in the latest outing from Aardman Animations, and as usual, the British stop-motion masters cheerfully prove that [...]

  • Slam

    Film Review: ‘Slam’

    The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, Opening [...]

  • Igo Kantor

    Igo Kantor, Producer and Post-Production Executive, Dies at 89

    Igo Kantor, whose Hollywood career took him from Howard Hughes’ projection room to supervising post-production on “Easy Rider” and producing B-movies like “Kingdom of the Spiders” and “Mutant,” died Oct. 15. He was 89. Kantor, who was born in Vienna and raised in Lisbon, met “Dillinger” director Max Nosseck on the ship to New York. [...]

  • The Lion King

    Average Movie Ticket Price Falls 4% in Third Quarter of 2019

    Average ticket prices for the third quarter have dropped 4% to $8.93, down from Q2’s $9.26, the National Association of Theatre Owners announced today. However, compared with the third quarter of 2018, ticket price has risen 1.1% from $8.83. The summer box office is down 2.13% from 2018, though the third quarter box office is [...]

  • Tilda Swinton to Preside Over The

    Tilda Swinton to Preside Over Marrakech Film Festival

    Tilda Swinton, the iconoclastic British actress and producer, is set to preside over the 18th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, succeeding to American director James Gray. Swinton, who won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for “Michael Clayton,” has been leading an eclectic acting career. She has collaborated with [...]

  • The King Netflix

    Middleburg Film Festival Brings Hollywood to Virginia

    For the last seven years, audiences have flocked to the Middleburg Film Festival. Running October 17th – 21st, and situated in the wine-country hills of historic Middleburg, Virg., the festival usually highlights some of the year’s buzziest titles, and 2019 is no exception. “We’re a smaller festival with fewer overall screenings than other events, so we [...]

  • Kelly McCormick and David Leitch'Fast &

    'Wheelman' Director to Helm 'Versus' From David Leitch, Kelly McCormick (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Wheelman” director Jeremy Rush is in negotiations to helm the action movie “Versus,” with Kelly McCormick and David Leitch producing. Rush will direct the Universal movie from a script penned by “Three Musketeers” scribe Alex Litvak and “American Assassin” writer Mike Finch. Plot details are being kept under wraps, though it will follow the genre [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content