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God of War

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By the time the credits rolled on 2010’s God of War III, Kratos – the shouty, chain-wielding, revenge-taking protagonist – was really starting to get on my tits. He’d become a one-note bore, a hyper-masculine, invincible douche bro who couldn’t stop blaming everyone else for the problems his own violent dipshittery had exacerbated over the previous couple of games. Worse still, he’d become predictable and just not that much fun to play. This feeling persisted in sorta-prequel, 2013’s God of War: Ascension, an otherwise excellent hack-and-slash adventure that felt inessential due to a protagonist who didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. “Reckon I’m about done with the God of War series,” I mused, and gave it no further thought.

Cut to: 2018 and the much anticipated release of God of War – a new entry in the series that acts as a sequel, reboot and reimagining all in one.

An indeterminate amount of time has passed for Kratos, who now sports a hefty lumberjack beard, and his chains are nowhere to be seen. When we first meet him he’s preparing his significant other’s funeral pyre, assisted by his son, Atreus.

Wait, what, son?! Kratos has children???

Yes, it seems our bald-bonced deity-slapper sprogged up and the experience has caused the former “Ghost of Sparta” to calm down a bit, and reflect on his past misdeeds. Although having children has caused your real-life friends to become unutterably tedious, the experience has improved Kratos no end. Instead of posting basically the same photo of Atreus over and over and over again (we get it, Charmaine, your kid’s wearing a hat! Sew adorbs, you guyz), Kratos is trying to be a good father, a positive example, and bring up a decent being in the world of Norse mythology.

A fresh pantheon of Gods and a brand new outlook aren’t the only big changes in GoW, we also have a perspective shift to behind Kratos’ shoulder, similar to the POV from The Last of Us. Essentially the game appears to take place in one long, uninterrupted take, which gives a sense of immediacy and grittiness absent from the other titles. The tradeoff here is that you won’t get the series’ signature zoom-out-to-showcase-the-size-of-the-environment/monster but it’s a conceit that really works. The story starts off with very low stakes, Kratos and sonny boy explore the strange lands to scatter some ashes from atop a mountain, and things build from there. Of course the plot twists and turns like a massive serpent, but I won’t reveal any of the specifics here. Needless to say, Norse mythology is a great belief system to tackle and by the end of the game’s 30ish hours you’ll have executed feats of daring and strength that are some of the most memorable in the series.

The biggest surprise in God of War is not how much fun the new Thor-like, boomeranging, Leviathan Axe is to use, because the series has always had excellent combat. Nor is it a huge stretch that Atreus is such a compelling character, because The Last of Us pretty much set the standard for non-annoying buddy characters and is clearly a significant influence here. No, the biggest surprise about this year’s GoW is how much you’ll care about Kratos. Christopher Judge turns in a fantastically nuanced voice and motion performance, with significant range. Combined with a clever, layered script and a story that goes to some genuinely emotional places, old bald-man-punch-a-lot has transformed into a fascinating character reminiscent of William Munny, Clint Eastwood’s broken old gunslinger from Unforgiven (1992).

In 2010 Kratos became a bore. In 2018 he is reborn and headlines what is probably the year’s best game so far. Put simply: if you own a PS4 of PS4 Pro this is a day one, must-buy title. Epic, exciting, visually splendid, violent and emotionally resonant – God of War is more than just an excellent, action-adventure reboot, it’s a Gods-damned masterpiece.

 
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Lost in Space

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The old Irwin Allen inter-generational staple of after-school TV gets the prestige treatment as Lost in Space comes to Netflix, boasting a bigger budget, flashier effects, a notable cast, and a curiously old-fashioned approach to sci-fi adventure.

The broad strokes of the plot map onto the original reasonably closely: the Robinson family are part of an interstellar colonial effort, but when things go awry they – and a larger number of supporting cast than we’re used to – find themselves sucked through a wormhole and flung across the galaxy, crashing on an alien planet where they must contend with hostile conditions, aggressive critters, and threats both exotic (the series iconic Robot is re-imagined as an alien combat drone that imprints on young Will Robinson) and insidious (Doctor Smith, now played with deliciously evil glee by Parker Posey, is a murderous saboteur).

By largely restricting the action to one alien world, this new Lost in Space hearkens back to the original’s literary antecedent, Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. By keeping the focus more or less on 11 year old Will (Maxwell Jenkins), it recalls the early young reader work of SF patriarch Robert Heinlein – the sort of freewheeling adventures typified by Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. That’s a good thing; SFTV has been trending darker of late (The Expanse, Star Trek: Discovery, Altered Carbon), and it’s a nice change of pace to have a genre series you might actually be able to watch with your kids.

Indeed, the series falters a little when it recentres the frame on the familial issues of John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), or the more disturbing machinations of the sociopathic Smith; tonally, they don’t jibe with the more innocent adventures of the Robinson kids, who also include medical prodigy Judy (Taylor Russell) and eternal middle kid Penny (Mina Sundwall). Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West tends to fare better, largely because he’s been re-positioned as a bumbling rogue in the Han Solo/Mal Reynolds/Star-Lord mould.

The biggest problem with the new Lost in Space is the tension between these two drives (that and the usual Netflix issue of being a couple episodes too long). Going forward, a commitment to one or the other will be needed and, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, a lighter, less dour approach to the material will probably serve it best. At this stage of the game, Lost in Space is promising; with closer attention to tone it could be a future classic a couple of seasons down the track.

 
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Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom

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No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is the sequel to 2013’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Like its predecessor, Ni No 2 presents a fantasy world with the dreamy aesthetic of a Studio Ghibli film (although with no actual involvement from the studio this time around) and the result is as charming and whimsical as that would suggest. However all is not perfect in the playful realms presented, as Ni No 2 seems to want to ask: what if whimsical… but too much?

The story of Revenant Kingdom begins in the land of Ding Dong Dell where the evil-but-cute-looking Mausinger (a giant mouse) is in the middle of a coup to oust animal-eared little boy and heir to the throne, Evan Pettiwhisker. Roland Crane, a mysterious man from another world, saves Evan and the pair escape the kingdom, striving to create one of their own. The game then introduces you to an impressively large semi-open world you can explore and start to build your party and new kingdom where everyone will be happy and no one fights.

If that all sounds a bit saccharine, you don’t know the half of it. Ni No 2 comes off like a wide-eyed idealist or an earnest mate who necked one pinger too many, and although that can be charming it does grate after a while. This almost cloying sense of lightness also creeps into the gameplay, which while well-honed in terms of combat mechanics is also ludicrously easy, without a hard mode available at time of writing. Again, not every game needs to be Dark Souls but it’s hard to get excited about exploring optional dungeons for better loot when your bog standard gear is more than enough to take on even the toughest foe.

That said, there’s a solid little adventure here and while there aren’t quite enough fully animated cutscenes or fully voiced sections (which is weird when you consider how important the art style is to the title), you’ll likely find yourself diverted by this colourful, albeit slight, ephemeral journey. Taken as a fluffy jaunt through a child-like world of wonder and whimsy, Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom is an appealing experience, just don’t expect much in the way of challenge or narrative depth, otherwise you might be unable to see the goods through the twee.

 
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The Titan

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In the mid-21st century, Earth’s biosphere is on its absolute last legs and mankind’s hopes hinge on the successful colonisation of other planets. Saturn’s moon of Titan is selected, and scientist Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) heads up a program to radically alter human volunteers to survive the incredibly harsh conditions there. One of his subjects is former pilot Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington). As the program continues and the changes wrought on Janssen become more and more radical, his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) begins to wonder if her husband still qualifies as human.

The outline of a potentially brilliant and provocative story of transhumanism is clearly discernible through the smudged window that is The Titan, a film that continually creeps right up to the edge of being interesting, but consistently refuses to take the final step beyond the mundane and predictable. It’s not a terrible movie as such, but rather a maddeningly routine one, committed to making the safest narrative choices even as it gradually transforms leading man Worthington into a hairless alien being – really, if you’re committed to reshaping your star into a little green (well, grey, actually) man, you might as well go hog wild.

The key problem is that the script, by Max Hurwitz, refuses to keep us in Janssen’s shoes, shifting our point of view to that of Abigail just as things are getting interesting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the more intriguing story here is that of a person dealing with their irreversibly changing nature. The Titan eschews that in favour of following Abigail as she investigates Collingwood’s fairly predictable malfeasance, relegating Janssen to the status of of a plot element rather than a character for large swathes of the film. His interior life gradually fades from our sight as the film progresses, until he’s as much a cipher to us as he is to the other characters – especially once his various surgeries and gene therapies cost him his voice. It’s interesting to contrast The Titan with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, which managed to keep our empathy and identification with both leads, even as it delved further and further into body horror.

The Titan is not The Fly, of course, but it is playing with similar ideas about the relationship between personhood, identity, and the body, so the comparison is a fair and damning one. No, this is another entry in Netflix’s seemingly endless string of mid-budget, middling-appeal sci-fi films they seem to be spending a lot of time and effort horse-trading for – consider it alongside Annihilation (absolutely worth your time), The Cloverfield Paradox (absolutely not), and the upcoming Extinction (anyone’s guess). The Titan sits right in the middle of the pack: well shot and designed, and sure to tick a few boxes for fans of the genre, but ploddingly written and not nearly as clever or provocative as it seems to think it is. Possibly worth a Sunday afternoon couch date when you’ve exhausted the more interesting options out there, but don’t go in expecting anything transcendent.

 
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Far Cry 5

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Why do people join cults? Is it a love of Kool-Aid and other easily poisonable beverages? The promise of sex with dozens of vacant-eyed acolytes? Or is it based on a genuine belief system wherein you – the cult leader – are literally in contact with God (or Gods) and have the answer to that whole pesky ‘meaning of life’ thing? Sadly Far Cry 5 does essentially nothing to answer any of these questions. Happily Far Cry 5 features a mechanic where you can rain down hellfire on a camp of cultists and then have a cougar sneak in and eat anyone still left alive.

Yes, Far Cry is back and this time it’s Murica! Far Cry 5 puts you in the boots of a sheriff’s deputy (appearance and gender lightly customisable) and the result is a great deal of absurdist, explosive – albeit narratively shallow – fun.

The game is set in the fictional town of Hope County, Montana, where an inexplicably popular preached named Joseph Seed has convinced whole sections of the community it’s the end of days, and everyone should follow his word to the letter. Joseph – who looks sort of like a sweaty, man-bunned Jared Leto – has brought other Seeds with him, including John, Jacob and Faith, all of whom are the bad kind of Seed. In your role as Rook (or Rookie) you’ll need to dismantle the operations of these siblings, amass a legion of followers keen on fighting these coiffed God-botherers and finally take on the big man himself. But will you be able to survive decimated Hope County? And, more importantly will you blow lots of shit up along the way?

The answer to that latter question is an emphatic yes. Far Cry 5 doubles down on the exploration/explosion conceit of Far Cries 3 and 4 and ups the ante even further, adding planes, helicopters and all manner of companion characters, human and otherwise. You’ll fight, shoot, hunt, explore and craft increasingly potent weapons as you battle the sinister death cult with the power of guns, guns, guns. Yee-hah!

You might think a game released in 2018, set in America, and featuring such savage bloodlust might actually take an ideological position on the story shenanigans, but you’d be wrong. Far Cry 5 is a “shoot first, think never” experience, which – while totally valid for disposable escapism – does rather stop the antagonists from resonating as anything other than names on your shit list.

A more relevant disappointment is the enemy AI, which seems to have not improved since previous Far Cry entries. Yeah, it’s fun to blast away at idiotic, directionally-challenged rednecks, but as Metal Gear: The Phantom Pain showed us, a smart enemy is far more satisfying to outwit.

That said, Far Cry 5 is a massive, gorgeous game and another step along the Ubisoft course correction path that (arguably) started with Watch Dogs 2, then Assassin’s Creed: Origins and continues with Far Cry 5.

It’s not deep, it lacks layers, but burning a scorching path through Hope County, particularly with a co-op buddy, is an undeniable hoot. Ultimately Far Cry 5 won’t answer the question ‘why do people join cults’, but boy howdy does it ever deliver a fun experience while burning them to the ground.

Check out just under 40 minutes of co-op gameplay footage captured by the mighty Grizwords:

 
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A Way Out

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What’s a better proposition in a game: a slick rehash of something you’ve seen dozens of times before, or an original but wonky experiment and a not-entirely-successful attempt at something fresh? That’s the question that is central to your enjoyment, or lack thereof, regarding A Way Out: a brand spanking new game released by Electronic Arts that is unlike any prior EA title.

A Way Out is a two player, co-op only, experience that puts you in the dirty shoes of prison inmates, Vincent Moretti (Eri Krogh) and/or Leo Caruso (Fares Fares). Vincent is the straight man, severe, serious and efficient while Leo is an absolute mad bastard with a nose for trouble and, indeed, a troubling nose.

Damn thing is huge. Like Cyrano de Bergerac-sized.

These two protagonists aren’t exactly the best of friends, but they need one another to escape from their prison and exact revenge on a mutual enemy. They will need to work together or rot in jail, a decision neither man finds particularly difficult to make. What’s unique about A Way Out is that you’ll be playing co-op with your partner for the entire 4-6 hour adventure. You’ll band together to escape from the prison (which should honestly have been called Endless Shawshank Redemption References Jailhouse), survive on the land and enter a final act that I won’t reveal, but is clever, engaging and unexpected.

That’s all the good news about A Way Out. Less successful are elements like the gameplay, which offers many options but most of them are a little clunky and half-baked. You most likely won’t care that a lot of your progress is essentially quicktime events and mini-games, because the story is genuinely compelling, but it’s worth noting that your fond memories won’t be regarding the driving mechanics or precision shooting. Because they’re workmanlike and functional at best. Like Telltale Games titles, A Way Out is all about the narrative and your interaction with you co-op partner, and when it works it shines. Hell, even when it doesn’t work it’s still pretty fun to riff on it with your mate.

Ultimately A Way Out is a bold experiment that doesn’t always work, but should be admired and appreciated nonetheless. It also sells for $39 bucks and only requires one player to own the game. The price is great, the game is good and the story is legitimately engaging. If you’re into trying new things, then buddy up and have a good time. Because in 2018 any game that isn’t a microtransaction-riddled mess with grindy, tedious busywork is something of a victory.

 
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Santa Clarita Diet Season 2

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Television’s perkiest zombie returns in the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, aka: the show where Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Whereas the first season was mostly table setting, demarcating our characters – chiefly affluent suburban husband and wife realtors Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Barrymore) Hammond – and their situation – chiefly holy crap, Sheila’s undead! – the second course expands the menu somewhat, serving up interesting character dynamics and beginning to lay out a background mythology that looks to be more detailed and involving than the pop culture’s default zombie lore.

This season is marked improvement over the first, which was no slouch itself, benefiting from a more consistent tone and having put all that set up behind itself. We’re in full-on story mode now. The show knows its central activity (looking for a cure while concealing Sheila’s condition and inevitable murders), it’s go-to gags (contrasting extreme gore against the pastel banality of suburbia), and its tone (upbeat cheerfulness stretched skingraft-thin over howling madness – that’s a tough needle to thread). Everyone involved is pushing in the same direction; uneven performances have been smoothed out, the stakes and buy-in have been established, and the overarching narrative is underway.

Not that Santa Clarita Diet is overly concerned with the big moments and sudden reveal theatrics that plague so many shows – instead, it piles minor complication upon minor complication until we and the characters look up and realise we’re hopelessly mired, overworked, under-rested, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping. It’s the old rat-race rigmarole of having to get to work, do the shopping, pick up the kids, make a dental appointment, do the laundry, make dinner, only with the added complication of clean the blood off the kitchen, get rid of the body in the freezer, and obtain the bile of a Serb. If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another.

At the centre of it all are Barrymore and Olyphant, who are just killing it this season. Barrymore’s chipper and cheerfully homicidal Sheila is, of course, the main focus here, and its always fun to watch her try to conceal the fact that she is clearly loving being an undead cannibal (real talk: if a cure is found, will she take it?), while Olyphant continues to deploy comic gifts that could hardly be guessed at during his previous tenure as a tough guy in Deadwood and Justified. His ability to convey almost constant near-panic while maintaining a semblance of outward composure is remarkable.

The returning – which is to say, surviving – supporting cast are all in fine form. Liz Hewson as daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as professional dork Eric get a little more room to move on their own, with Abby becoming a kind of rebel hero at high school after she scones a bully with a lunch tray, while Eric continues to try and fail to be helpful. Andy Richter remains a perpetual thorn in the side as Sheila and Joel’s self-centered boss, while Natalie Morales is on hand as eccentric sheriff’s deputy Anne to crank up the tension whenever it needs cranking.

We also get a few new faces, some of which remain uneaten, including Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as a ruthless rival realtor couple, and old Deadwood hand Gerald McRaney as a retired army colonel who may hold clues to Sheila’s contagion.

Santa Clarita Diet remains a consistently funny, weirdly amiable watch. For all that it deals with murder, cannibalism, and lashings of gore, there’s something nice about seeing a family sticking by each other through thick and thin, even when their matriarch is using a human heart as a stress ball. There’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, which is not something we get to say often. If subsequent seasons can maintain this level of quality, we’re all in.

 

 
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Yakuza 6: The Song of Life

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The rain-slicked streets of Onomichi Jingaicho glisten in the sporadic neon light. I’m walking down a dangerous looking alley, past some very dodgy customers, to get to my objective. They follow, muttering darkly to one another. It soon becomes clear they’re about to have a go at me. I politely ask a nearby pedestrian to hold my baby and then turn to face them. I’m ready to unleash a volley of kicks and punches on these mongrels that will leave them crawling along the bloody ground, sick with agony and regret. I crack my knuckles and get to work, taking care of the six strong crew swiftly and without mercy. After all, I have a hungry baby to feed.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life is the latest entry in the long running, critically lauded Yakuza series. The entire franchise is rather unique in the realm of video games. It tells complex, adult-orientated stories that are voice acted in the original Japanese and require subtitles, rather than the usual english language dubs. The stories told are often convoluted, dense and very slow burn, with few if any concessions given to short attention spans and yet it’s precisely because of this originality, this unique flavour, that makes the series so damn engaging.

Yakuza 6: Song of Life is the first entry made specifically for PS4 (as opposed to a PS3 remaster) and graphically the upgrade is immediately noticeable. From lifelike character animations, to sprawling brawls that run from one location to another, to landscapes that are vividly painted and feel alive – Yakuza has never been this pretty before. The story too focuses mainly on the mission of Kazuma Kiryu – rather than splitting the tale between multiple POV characters – and the result is a more disciplined, engaging tale. Certainly Yakuza 6 has many of the series’ bells and whistles: endless side quests, mini-games for days and mildly titillating optional pursuits – but the real star here is the story, which manages to be surprising and unexpectedly emotional at times, with some great twists.

Of course combat is frequent and here too the game excels, featuring meaty, satisfying fighting mechanics that are customisable and, on occasion, hilarious. There may come a time when knocking down half a dozen blokes with a well-swung bike gets old, but that time has not yet occured.

On the downside some of the side content can become a little wearying. Some of the side, and even main, missions get a little fetch questy at times and the new Clan Creator mode feels like an unnecessary complication in a game that’s already chockers with extra content.

Then again that’s another example of the series’ commitment to being its own entity. Is it a brawler, an RPG or a interactive movie? It’s kind of all of those things and more. It’s the type of game that rewards slow, meticulous play so don’t burn yourself out on it. Play for an hour or two a night, and drink in the atmosphere, the tension and the occasionally baffling moments of tonal whiplash.

Yakuza 6: Song of Life is a fascinating, original and engaging experience. Gleefully weird yet utterly compelling, it’s well worth a bash for those seeking something a little bit different and a great jumping on point for Yakuza newbies.

 
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The Outsider

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In 1950s Osaka, former US soldier Nick Lowell (Jared Leto) finds himself drawn into the orbit of a struggling organised crime family after he saves one of their number, Kiyoshi (Tadanobu Asano) from being murdered while in prison.  Nick’s fearlessness, adaptability and talent for sudden violence make him a useful tool to the  yakuza clan, and one they’ll need; rivalry with another yakuza gang blossoms into bloodshed in a war for control of Osaka in general and the city’s valuable docks in particular. However, for all that he takes to the outlaw lifestyle like he was born to it, Nick is still a gaijin – an outsider – and his loyalty and ruthlessness might not be enough to secure his place in a criminal underworld that may never accept him.

Written by Andrew Baldwin, The Outsider went through a couple of iterations in development before finally reaching the screen under the guidance of Martin Zandvliet (the excellent Land of Mine) and with the divisive Jared Leto as the titular figure. At one point Daniel Espinosa (Life) was set to direct Michael Fassbender in the film, while at another Takashi Miike (200 movies and counting – you’ll know at least five of them) was going to call the shots on Tom Hardy (and, for real, imagine that). Still, there’s little worth in wondering what might have been; the version of The Outsider we’ve got is solidly entertaining, even if its plot steers well inside the familiar narrative constraints of the Mafia picture, Japanese or other.

The joys of the film are in the details. Zandvliet does well to place is an unfamiliar and intriguing milieu: postwar Japan after the end of the official American occupation but still under the Western power’s economics and, to a degree, cultural heel. As captured by cinematographer Camilla Hjelm Knudsen’s crips, clean work, mid-’50s Osaka is a place of clashes and contrasts: thugs wear slick western suits and visit America-style strip clubs, but tanto daggers are wielded as well as Colt .45s, a tea ceremony seals an oath of allegiance, and making amends for failure means losing a finger joint in a display of stoic self-mutilation. A few ignorant column inches have already been spent on the negative connotations of a story set in Japan centering on a white Western protagonist, but in this context that contrast is part of the film’s underlying thematic weave; this is no Mighty Whitey or White Saviour narrative, but an exploration of a time and place in cultural flux.

Leto makes some interesting choices in his portrayal of Lowell, keeping him closed off and inscrutable for the most part, while the script only alludes to his past life and prior crimes (Emile Hirsch crops up as a war buddy at one point, surprised to find his messmate suited up and prowling Osaka’s neon streets; the encounter does not end well). we get no explanatory or ironic Scorsese-esque voiceover, and must parse Lowell for ourselves. The inescapable conclusion is that he’s a sociopath and is determined to carve out a place fro himself in a world where that particular shortcoming is viewed as an asset; on reflection even his stilted romance with Kiyoshi’s sister, Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna), for all that it risks earning the ire of ally and foe alike for the perceived crime of miscegenation, seems calculated.

Inscrutable protagonists are, of course, a staple of the yakuza subgenre – look at the oeuvre of  “Beat” Takeshi Kitano for plenty of examples. Kitano’s shadow falls on The Outsider in other ways, too. The film’s execution of violence, which almost uniformly explodes out of stillness onto the screen with explosive force, owes a lot to Takeshi’s body of work, although the film of his it most obviously parallels is Brother (2000), the director’s only english-language film to date, which saw a nigh-mute yakuza member decamp to the US and guide a small gang of American drug dealers to preeminence.

The other obvious touchstone is the recently deceased Seijun Suzuki, who was making scandalous yakuza-themed B-movies not too many years on from The Outsider‘s period setting – consider Youth of the Beast (1963), Tokyo Drifter (1966), and Branded to Kill (1967), all highlights of the genre.

Nothing The Outsider does comes close to what those two wrought at the peak of their powers, of course, but while sublimity is always welcomed, solidity is good enough. With that in mind, The Outsider is a solid crime movie, elevated by a keen sense of place and some fine performances. Expect few surprises and revel in the texture.