Violence is bad. Violence is ugly. Violence breeds yet more violence. Kids, don't try this at home. This weighty message isn't the only barrier to enjoying Brother, but it's certainly one of the largest.
Written, directed by, and starring the infamous Takeshi Kitano (Kikujiro, Sonatine) Brother is his first film made outside his familial Japan, bringing the yakuza tradition to Los Angeles. (Yakuza translated for the average American is the Japanese mafia.)
If you piss a "family" member off, or dishonor yourself in any way, the usual punishment is public display of self-mutilation, usually resulting in the loss of limbs. A definition of dishonor can be anything from making a stupid decision to leaving one family for another.
It would be interesting to know more about where these and other customs come from. Unfortunately the film doesn't give too much of an explanation, assuming its audience is aware of Kitano's earlier work. There are several shots that focus specifically on detailed tattoos that spread across the entire back of the yakuza members, leading one to assume they would be symbolic of something, but you never know what. Then there's a scene in which a man kills himself in front of a rival in exchange for that rival joining the family. Granted, this is one of the best scenes in the movie, but it doesn't make a lot of sense.
Instead, the two hours are basically spent watching the following: people go out and shoot each other, talk about it for ten-plus minutes, then go out and do it again. The consistently repetitive discussion of territory during these moments involuntarily provokes yawning.
There are also plot details thrown in for no identifiable purpose. All of the sudden Yamamoto (Kitano) has a girlfriend. He barely speaks to her, treats her like crap, and then sends her away. Another missed opportunity, considering it is such a big deal for Kitano to bring his magic to the United States, is the combination of cultures, which rely too heavily on overused stereotypes.
Though slow moving, Brother does have good elements. The action scenes are well directed, clearly defined, and interesting to watch. Some of the violence is more hinted at than shown, which produces the luscious squirm that one goes to see such films for.
The actors would be more enticing if they had more to do. Shirase's (Masaya Kato) loud, sarcastic coolness set against Yamamoto's quietly threatening attitude is truly an entertaining combination. Their moments together or apart steal the rest of the show.
Also to its credit, Brother tackles the cause and effect of crime with realism. A life of crime is easy to get sucked into with the first reward of quick cash. Sure people get rich, but they can also lose just as easily. It's a great moral, with a great cast, just not much substance to back it up.
They don't look like brothers to me.