There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The sudden shifts in tone that characterize actor-writer-director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s films are frequently outrageous, but they’re no more jarring than the paradoxical roles he plays. Kitano generally casts himself as a sort of Zen Lone Ranger, implacably brutal yet deeply sentimental. Beneath his characters’ zealous quests to protect or avenge friends and family members is another, equally resolute goal: to cease to exist.
Brother is the first film Kitano has made outside Japan, and it forgoes some of the abstract touches of his previous art-gangster effort, Fireworks. In essence, though, the two are not much different. Although Brother toys with some cross-cultural issuesthe alienation that exiled mobster Yamamoto (Kitano) feels in L.A., the potential affinity between yakuza and African-American gangstasmostly it just transplants fierce, samurai-derived customs to America, which can’t help but look soft compared with Kitano’s homeland. In Fireworks, Kitano’s character stabbed an antagonist in the eye with a chopstick; in Brother, Yamamoto and friend-to-be Denny (Omar Epps) “meet cute” when the Tokyo thug thrusts a broken bottle into the L.A. small-timer’s eye socket. And there’s still a Fireworks-topping chopstick assault to come. (Don’t expect to see the sticks actually penetrate tender flesh, however; Kitano usually cuts away from savage acts, albeit with edits so sudden that they powerfully suggest the violence.)
The film opens with Yamamoto’s arrival at LAX and his search for his younger half brother, Ken (Claude Maki). Then it flashes back disorientingly to Tokyo, where a bloody gang war has decimated Yamamoto’s mob family, leaving him with no choice but to flee. This sleek, tidy segment coolly documents the grisly yakuza traditionsfinger amputations, ritual disembowelments, and morethat Yamamoto will transplant to the United States. Once there, he finds that his brother has dropped out of school and joined a small-time drug-dealing gang. When Ken gets in trouble with his supplier, Yamamoto steps in with ruthless efficiency. Soon, he’s being called “Aniki” (Japanese for “big brother”) by Ken, Denny, and a growing cadre of inexperienced, ethnically diverse gangsters.
From these modest beginnings, the banished yakuza’s gang moves first to take over Little Tokyo and then into a full-scale battle with the Mafia. (When an ally arrives from Japan, Yamamoto shrugs, “I’m at war in America, too.”) Even in new Yohji Yamamoto suits, the newcomers’ faction can’t possibly win, but that seems to be the point. Like a kamikaze pilot, Yamamoto seeks not victory but a spectacular way to lose. When the action ultimately moves into the desert, the director seems to be searching for a serene location where his alter ego hasn’t yet been annihilated.
The link between the yakuza’s brutal code and that of American gangbangers is Brother’s unfulfilled subtext. Perhaps because his English is limited, Kitano doesn’t really elaborate this themeor the parts played by the American actors. The director’s films are light on dialogue anyway, so perhaps he thought he needn’t worry about developing such characters as Denny. Occasional as they are, however, the English-language lines are often flat, and the performers who deliver them sometimes clumsy. Even Epps, whose Denny ultimately becomes Yamamoto’s closest cohort, is left to flounder in a final ad-libbed scene. The central section also sags, and the film is becalmed by Joe Hisaishi’s drippy orchestral-jazz score, although it revives for some final shootouts, one of them lit by strobe lights.
The jumpiness of the strobe-punctuated sequence merely accentuates the director’s characteristic mode. Because he has a heavy schedule as a Japanese TV star, Kitano typically shoots his films in one-week bursts; the uninterrupted seven weeks he spent filming Brother is unprecedented. What happens in the editing room, though, is at least as important as anything captured on the set. Kitano edited all but the first of his nine features, developing an elliptical style that isfor all his films’ brutalityessentially comic. The director’s sensibility combines Yasujiro Ozu’s austerity with Sam Peckinpah’s ferocity, but with a sense of timing that suggests Charlie Chaplin. The result is fascinating but almost too singular: Kitano’s movies are private jokes that use intense violence in ways that can seem purely formal. When he pulls off such stunts as arranging a pile of corpses to spell shithe Japanese character for “death”Kitano transforms slaughter into a form of ikebana.
Dr. Alan Grant’s journey to Isla Sorna, sister island to the one he barely survived in Jurassic Park, is a different sort of suicide mission. Alan (Sam Neill) and the trip’s sponsors, professed adventurers Paul and Amanda Kirby (William H. Macy and Téa Leoni), find themselves marooned, defenseless, and surrounded by enormous predators, yet it’s clear that they’re not going to die. Jurassic Park III is Hollywood’s idea of a battle to the deathwhich means that only computer-generated creatures and supporting characters actually perish.
When the story begins, Alan is communing with the kind of dinosaurs he likes best: the fossilized kind. Money is running low for his paleontological research, however, so he agrees to meet the Kirbys, who claim to be rich thrill seekers who want to survey Isla Sorna from the air. They offer Alan a large sum to be their guide, and soon he and assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) are in a plane with Paul, Amanda, and three bodyguardswho are really, of course, three walking containers of dinosaur nosh.
Over Alan’s strenuous objections, Paul orders the plane to land. It’s promptly crunched by a whateverasaurus, leaving the seven (but not for long) visitors trapped on the island. It turns out that this is what Paul and Amanda want, sort of. They’re tracking their son, Eric (Trevor Morgan), who disappeared while on a parasailing adventure near the island with his stepfather, Amanda’s second husband. Yup, Amanda’s surname isn’t really Kirby anymore, but as surely as Steven Spielberg is JP III’s executive producer, you can count on the movie’s returning the Kirbys to intact nuclear-familyhood.
If this reconciliation seems perfunctory, so does the entire movie. Director Joe Johnston (whose credits include the cryptofascist boys’ space adventure October Sky) headed for the film’s Hawaii locations without a finished script, and although Peter Buchman gets the main screenwriting credit, several other writers reportedly contributed emergency rewrites. Credit should also go to Michael Crichton and David Koepp, who wrote the first Jurassic Park, because JP III matter-of-factly lifts scenes from that predecessor. Like so many recent Hollywood sequels, this isn’t so much a continuation of the tale as it is a recombinant version of the original. You can think of JP III as an inconclusive cinematic stem-cell experiment.
Seemingly produced on the (relative) cheap, the movie runs only 95 minutes and cuts some corners: The ‘saurs are presented in fog, darkness, and extreme close-up to save animation time and effort. The development of the movie’s motifs is equally cursory. Before visiting Isla Sorna, Alan announces that new research shows that velociraptors “were smarter than primates,” and once he’s watching them in action, he becomes convinced that the beasts are actually talking to each other. But rather than turn into a plea for ‘raptor literacyand wouldn’t it be gratifying to parachute Barbara Bush onto Isla Sorna with boxes of picture books for the carnivorous hatchlings?the movie just cuts to the chases. Tripping over heavy musical cues, the survivors rush to the coast, where they run smack into something resembling the cast of Saving Private Ryan.
If Jurassic Park III is little more than a compendium of scenes and themes from recent Spielbergers, at least it’s good-natured about it. Its score aside, the movie is seldom ponderous. It’s hard to dislike any film that, in the process of exalting the most ferocious predators ever animated, gives one of its shrewdest scenes to the man-eaters’ purple, singalong cousin. CP