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.
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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.