Exiled Japanese killer starts a suicidal mob war in Los Angeles. Brutal gangster picture has flashes of humor to compensate for a weak script.

After conquering Japanese film and TV, actor and director Takeshi Kitano takes on the United States in a movie set almost entirely in California. Kitano essentially reprises bits from his earlier gangster films, throwing in some gags about the inevitable clash between yakuza and Mafia traditions. While brilliant in spots, overall Brother is an uneven, disappointing mix of violence and comedy.

Mob enforcer Yamamoto ('Beat' Takeshi Kitano) arrives in Los Angeles looking for his 'brother' Ken (Claude Maki), a member of his gangster family in Japan. Ken is now running a small-time drug ring with Denny (Omar Epps), Mo (Lombardo Boyar) and Jay (Royale Watkins). With a limited command of English, Yamamoto uses violence to communicate. Within hours, he has murdered Ken's supplier and his Mexican cohorts. Flashbacks show how Yamamoto was betrayed by a rival gang in Tokyo, and also help explain why he seems determined to start a war in Los Angeles.

As Ken and his friends watch dumbfounded, Yamamoto kills everyone in his way. Soon his new gang is ensconced in plush headquarters, complete with an indoor basketball court. Yamamoto then does what he thinks gangsters should do: He picks up a hooker (Joy Nakagawa) in garish clothes, plays practical jokes on his gang, and rides around town in a stretch limo.

Yamamoto accepts a merger with rival gangster Shirase (Masaya Kato), even though it causes the death of his closest friend Kato (Susumu Terajima). Shirase proves even more bloodthirsty than Yamamoto, bringing the gang into a war with the Mafia. Yamamoto seems to lose interest in living. He inadvertently kills hooker girlfriend Marina, then watches silently as his gang is decimated by his enemies.

The first hour of Brother is often riveting, with director Kitano expertly juggling cold, clinical violence with deadpan humor. But Kitano more or less exhausted the yakuza genre in earlier films like Sonatine. Since he's run out of things to say about his gangster characters, there's nothing left to do but kill them in increasingly gruesome ways. Kitano isn't really conversant enough with American culture to add anything original to our gangster genre. He also may have misjudged our taste for violence.

The acting is uneven. Maki generally holds his own next to Kitano's stoic presence, and longtime Kitano regular Terajima registers strongly. But Kato overacts badly as a cigar-smoking mobster, and Epps proves a bigger disappointment, failing to punch across his big speeches.

Kitano's signature lens filters give the Los Angeles exteriors a lustrous blue cast, but the film's vision of America ultimately isn't convincing. The plot loses steam as Kitano falls prey to the same clichs that mar Hollywood B-movie thrillers. Even Joe Hisaishi, among the most melodic of soundtrack composers, settles for a bland, disappointing score. Despite its seductive style, Brother fails to match the best of Kitano's films.

--Daniel Eagan