In a world without honor, anything is fair game. Audiences may be used to epic mobster films. Indeed, films like The Godfather, Scarface, and Goodfellas are part of the typical American moviegoer’s DNA. But the Japanese world of the yakuza (violent gangster) is entirely different than its western counterpart. The world of Outrage is that of ancient codes of conduct, violence, and brutal revenge. It is a world where romantic notions of “honor among thieves” do not really exist, and heroes are hard to come by.

Strict castes of power are outlined from the very beginning, with images of a small army of awkward chauffeurs lying in wait for their powerful bosses outside a prestigious restaurant. Inside, an important meeting is being held by the Sanno-Kai crime syndicate, headed by “The Chairman” Sekuichi (Soichiro Kitamura). The Chairman might as well be emperor to this group of gangsters, as they all literally bow to his feet. The Chairman is upset that one of his underling affiliates, Ikemoto (Jun Kunimura), who represents the Ikemoto family, has an old “pact” with one the Chairman’s competitors, Murase (Renji Ishibashi). He encourages Ikemoto to break off the pact by inciting an incident with the Murase family.  The subsequent “incident” kicks off an irreversible and escalating set of retaliations and vendettas that spiral completely out of control, threatening not only the survival of the Murase family and the Ikemoto family, but the very structure of the Sanno-Kai crime syndicate. Dragged into the fray is a cop that is corrupt to the core, and an African ambassador that, once a willing partner, is now desperate to escape the manipulations of the crime syndicate.

The movie shifts focus early on from Ikemoto to one of his subordinates, Otomo (Beat Takeshi), a seasoned Yakuza gangster that believes in the word and honor of his superiors. He is the closest thing to a hero in the film, though he does nothing redeeming to earn such a title other than to supposedly be old-fashioned. But this “old-fashioned” gangster commits one of the first acts of egregious violence in the film: using a box-cutter to slash up the face of someone sent to apologize. From this point forward, the violence only gets worse.

What follows is a cynical escalation of one side roughing up the other. The depictions of violence are brutal and disturbing, often coming with little warning and executed by the perpetrators with sadistic glee. It’s not long before maiming and torture is not enough, and members of both sides start turning up dead.

The motivations, too, begin to shift, as the positions of power recently vacated by an untimely demise suddenly become open. What began as an exercise in shutting out one family now represents a struggle for power in three organizations, including the all-powerful Sanno-Kai syndicate. Promises are made as quickly as they can be broken, and perceived betrayals are punished in gruesome fashion. It is not pretty, or honorable, despite any clichés about Japanese gangsters that audiences may have coming in.

The film itself moves along at a brisk pace, and the director (Takeshi Kitano) moves about his brutal world with economy and grace. His actors are completely believable in their roles, and the shots themselves tell the story in a visually Spartan style, clean and simple. There is a certain poetry to the violence, in that the scene that precedes it is saturated in dread, and when the act finally comes, it is a relief as much as it is a shock. This is not a stylized representation of pain – it is meant to make audiences feel the pain.

Unfortunately, all these machinations can’t overcome the film’s biggest weakness – not a single likeable character. This is a movie full of sadistic villains, all out for greater power and stature. Even in similarly violent films like Scarface, audiences find compassion for the hero, because he has proven himself in some other way. Outrage, through its across–the-board sadism, systematically removes compassion and empathy for any character of consequence, thus completely negating the drama. By the end, it is difficult to feel triumph or defeat, because the numbing effects of bad men still lingers on all sides.