You can take the guy out of the yakuza but you can't take the yakuza out of the guy, as this movie about a Japanese gangster in America proves.
Hardened bad guy Yamamoto (Beat Takeshi, who also wrote and directed) sneaks out of Tokyo after his Japanese mob family disbands. He travels to Los Angeles and tracks down his much younger half-brother Ken (Claude Maki), a petty drug dealer. Because thuggery is the only way of life Yamamoto knows, he starts his own mini crime ring with Ken and Ken's buddies. Thanks to Yamamoto's determination, not to mention his penchant for violence, their little posse goes quickly from small time to the big league, taking over turf from Ken's Hispanic suppliers, teaming with a rival Japanese faction and facing off against the Mafia. Meanwhile, as Yamamoto's gang's success grows and the money flows, he develops an unexpected friendship and unlikely brotherhood bond with Ken's friend Denny (Omar Epps).
Takeshi's hard-boiled Yamamoto has two facial expressions--one with tics, one without. Could one really reach the levels of violence he does in this movie without batting an eyelash? But he has an intriguing way of drawing out the viewer's sympathy even though he's hardly sympathetic toward others in the movie himself. The sadly underused Epps is very good as the wary young homeboy from a nice family who is caught up in the events around him and who has a genuine soft spot for the hardened Yamamoto. Think of Brother as the anti-Rush Hour 2 of the summer.
Sometimes it's hard to figure out what's going on in this stylish, violent and weirdly comic thriller. Cryptic messages delivered in Japanese often are no more decipherable despite English subtitles and much of the first half is told in flashback, a fact you may not realize until the second half starts. But once you figure it out, the story moves quickly and keeps your attention--that is, if you can stand to watch. There are some horrifically violent moments that just don't let up, and by the second half the brutality is nonstop. Not only do you have bloody shoot-'em-ups taking place every other minute, you've got a guy committing hara-kiri in front of his dinner companions, fingers getting chopped off yakuza-style, death by chopsticks, etc., etc. (Oddly, the gangsters seem to be L.A.'s only inhabitants--the cops are nowhere to be found.)
Brother might as well have been called Everybody Dies--its graphic, unceasing bloodshed unfortunately overwhelms a story that showed great potential.