Movie Review: Jared Leto Goes Full Yakuza in ‘The Outsider’

Movie Review: Jared Leto Goes Full Yakuza in ‘The Outsider’

Another week, another new Netflix original torn to shreds by critics. 

But The Outsider, starring Jared Leto as a psychopathic American soldier in post-WWII Japan who joins up with the yakuza, is a solid, ice-cold gangster movie that certainly doesn’t deserve the scorn. 

In terms of American-made Japanese underworld dramas, it’s only a notch or two below Sydney Pollack’s 1974 feature The Yakuza, starring Robert Mitchum, which somehow felt more authentic than this sleek new update. 

Directed by Martin Zandvliet, a Danish filmmaker who previously made the acclaimed Land of Mine, The Outsider is instead an exercise in chilly, distant style. In that sense, it evokes the the work of Nicolas Winding Refn, and in particular his divisive Only God Forgives

And after successive films that cut star Leto loose in the wake of his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club (his vampy Joker was a disappointment in Suicide Squad, and he was the weakest part of Blade Runner 2049), here’s one that completely reigns him in. 

In The Outsider, Leto’s Nick Lowell is an emotionless enigma, a cold-blooded killer that I think might have been intended to come across as a cool 60s Alain Delon a la the films of Jean Pierre-Melville but instead makes for the embodiment pure evil. His character here is far more terrifying than his take on The Joker. 

Nick doesn’t say or do much throughout the film, but instead explodes in bouts of controlled violence, bashing a man’s head in with a typewriter or slitting another’s throat as if it were the natural progression of their conversation. 

In post-WWII Japan, he is indeed an outsider, inducted into the yakuza after helping jailmate Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) but never accepted as one of their own. 

But while he’ll always be a gaijin to yakuza boss Akihiro (Min Tanaka) and top-ranking brother Orochi (Kippei Shîna), Nick has finally found a home bathed in the violence of Japan’s criminal underworld. As yakuza members slice off a finger to atone his misdeeds, Nick is all too happy to cut off two. 

While Nick is front-and-center for much of the film, the supporting characters drive the story forward. Akihiro’s old-school yakuza is being forced out of Osaka by the young Hiromitsu (Ichi the Killer’s Nao Ohmori), bringing a clash of clans to a head. 

Meanwhile, Nick ill-advisedly hooks up with Kiyoshi’s younger sister Miyu (Shioli Kutsuna). 

The one big failing of The Outsider, from a script by John Linson and Andrew Baldwin, is that it treats Leto’s Nick as a cool hero a la Alain Delon or Ryan Gosling instead of the vicious psychopath he really is. Late scenes of vengeance and redemption don’t fit with this character, but are forced into the narrative to wrap things up in tidy fashion. 

Still, this is a sleek and often beautifully shot (by cinematographer Camilla Hjelm) film that contrasts external beauty with the vicious, violent world of the yakuza, and the menacing evil that lies at the heart of its hero. 

Nick Lowell is not a Last Samurai savoir but an external perversion that corrupts even the already-corrupt yakuza, bleak commentary on western involvement in Japan at the time.

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