BROTHER

This has been the year of “brother” insofar as movie titles go. First we had the Coens’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” There soon followed “The Brothers.” Now comes Takeshi Kitano’s “Brother.” Can “Bro” be far behind? And then maybe just “B” (after all, a modernization of “Othello” called “O” is supposedly awaiting release.)

Unfortunately, as the titles have gotten shorter, the quality has steadily fallen. “O Brother” was quite simply a delight, easily one of the best films of the winter season. “The Brothers,” by comparison, was tolerable but unexceptional. Kitano’s picture is, quite simply, an astonishingly amateurish resumption of his string of yakuza-themed flicks, muddled and banal in narrative terms and self-consciously artsy in technical ones. When it isn’t being dull, it’s simply silly.

Kitano, of course, is something of an icon in Japan, a smash both in film and on television, and his earlier gangster pictures have earned him a small cult following in this country, too. It’s probably the desire to expand on that crossover popularity that induced him to undertake this picture, which brings him to America, despite the fact that both his writing and acting show that he has little command of English. Under his thespian alias of Beat Takeshi, he plays a hard-boiled guy named Yamamoto who relocates to L.A. after his boss has been assassinated back home and the old “family” dismantled. On U.S. soil he creates a new gang of his own, employing a few refugees like himself but also a number of African-Americans who’ve been hanging with his Americanized half-brother Ken (Claude Maki); the most notable of these is Denny (Omar Epps), with whom the older man develops a near-fraternal bond. Initially their operation is extraordinarily successful as Yamamoto uses his combination of raw courage, street smarts and ruthlessness to rub out the opposition, but in time the boys bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, and doom follows, albeit of a supposedly heroic variety.

“Brother” boasts a good deal of the yakuza-inspired violence and mystical Obi-wan Kenobi sort of mumbo-jumbo that’s characterized Kitano’s earlier flicks, but it apparently also wants to be a commentary on how the “code” of that life crosses national and ethnic boundaries to create a sort of transcendent gangster nobility. Even on the most basic level this is a pretty silly concept, but it’s made more ridiculous by inept execution (pun intended). The most fundamental problem is with Kitano’s Yamamoto; simply put, the actor is so impassive that he’s like a stolid lump of flesh occasionally roused to a slight twitch that’s apparently intended to indicate a pulse still beating beneath the deceptively placid exterior. Bogart was often still and undemonstrative too, but he always suggested a force seething under the surface. With Kitano there’s none of that, just a dull somnolence. It certainly doesn’t help that as director Kitano has the camera linger on himself endlessly as he does virtually nothing but stare into space. The brooding quiet, contrasted with the periodic bursts of ultra-violence, is obviously supposed to create a hypnotic rhythm, but it’s so clumsily managed in this instance that it just lulls viewers into a state of near-slumber.

Kitano’s directorial inadequacies infect the remainder of the cast as well. Epps, who’s proven himself a charismatic actor in films like “Love and Basketball,” is entirely adrift as Denny; he fumbles through many scenes as though he were a complete amateur, and try as he might, he can’t make the capstone of the picture, a ludicrous final twist accompanied by a dumb monologue, anything more than the ridiculous bit of nonsense it is. None of the other performers makes much of an impression, though it’s nice to glimpse veteran James Shigeta as one of Yamamoto’s legal counselors, even if he looks understandably pained in most of his scenes.

Kitano was also responsible for the screenplay, of course, and in this capacity, too, he stumbles badly. The narrative is clumsy, fractured and oddly superficial, alternately unpleasant and absurd. Why, for example, in a film that purports to be about friendships crossing racial lines, are all the Latino rivals of the Yamamoto gang portrayed as leering caricatures? And how does Yamamoto smuggle an arsenal of guns into a supposedly neutral conference room, where he and his brother blow their enemies to bits? When such basic plot connections as this are simply ignored, a viewer can’t help but feel cheated on the most elementary level.

There will undoubtedly be those, devoted to Kitano’s work, who will overlook all the faults of “Brother” and proclaim it yet another masterpiece. These are the same folk who had nice things to say about his last picture, “Kikujiro,” the schmaltzy, tedious change-of-pace piece in which he played a grumpy gangster saddled with a young kid. That picture wasn’t any good, but at least it was coherent. “Brother” isn’t; and to make matters worse, it’s also a pale imitation of Kitano’s earlier efforts in story and style. If there does turn out to be a “Bro” out there in the wings, we can only pray it won’t be even worse than this.