Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

The English-language directing debut of Japanese pop phenomenon "Beat" Takeshi Kitano, this brutal, blistering crime picture brings his characteristic mix of long stretches of uneasy quiet and lurching spasms of gut-crunching violence to the streets of Los Angeles. Life-long Tokyo gangster Yamamoto (Kitano) fails to prevent the murder of his boss by underworld rivals. The yakuza code dictates that he should kill himself, but with the help of his longtime friend Kato (Susumu Terajima), he instead fakes his own death and flees to California. Yamamoto moves in with his thoroughly Americanized younger half-brother, Ken (Claude Maki), a virtual stranger who turns out to be a trash-talking, low-level drug dealer who's getting walked all over by a brutal Mexican gang. Though Yamamoto barely speaks English, he knows two things: How to run a gang and how to send a message that can't be ignored. So with the help of Kato, who joins him in L.A., Yamamoto begins engineering the criminal rise of Ken and his pals Jay (Royale Watkins), Mo (Lombardo Boyar) and Denny (Omar Epps), because really, what does he know except life within the familiar structure of a felonious family? Soon Ken and his ever-expanding gang are real players on the L.A. crime scene, with their careless, show-offy, gangsta attitudes tempered and focused by the austere, traditional yakuza notions of absolute loyalty and brotherhood to which Yamamoto introduces them. Meanwhile, Denny and Yamamoto forge an odd, perpetually off-kilter friendship, despite the very bad start to which they got off on Yamamoto's first day in L.A.: Denny tried to run a con on him and Yamamoto stabbed Denny in the eye with a bottle. As the good times roll, the newly minted crime lords are forced to learn what the wary, hard-bitten Yamamoto already knows: Once you make it to the top, the only way to go is down, and there's always some ambitious, bloodthirsty thug ready to take you out. Yamamoto brokers an alliance with psychotic Little Tokyo crime boss Shirase (Masaya Kato) and their consolidated power attracts the attention of the Mafia, setting the stage for a full-scale gang war. Like all Kitano's later films, this chilly shoot 'em up is contemplative and sometimes surprisingly opaque. But it delivers some powerful emotional wallops alongside the chopsticks-up-the-nose violence, and manages the remarkable feat of making venerable American genre conventions seem eerily alien.