‘Outrage’ is a muddled thrill ride

When it comes to gangster epics, shifting alliances and betrayal are commonplace. Few achieve the near-perfect balance of “The Godfather,” but many try. “Outrage” tries valiantly, but it’s self-defeating at so many turns that the dizzying number of plot twists cease to be compelling and just become confusing.

The world-weary yakuza boss Kannai (Soichiro Kitamura, “Reunion”) finds that his right-hand man has been making nice with a rival clan’s boss. A series of backhand dealings leaves the clans at each other’s throats, and Otomo (Takeshi Kitano, “Dearest”) is hired to set things right.

In truth, the plot doesn’t matter here. “Outrage” is a yakuza epic stripped to its bare essentials. Warring gangs don’t like each other and blood is shed. The minimal exposition serves to make the carnage somewhat meaningful, and it succeeds like an action movie succeeds. The characters have names and barely discernible personalities that keep them from seeming stale.

Clocking overtime as the writer, director and star, Kitano moves that action along with a stone-faced conviction. Even when he’s sawing into throats with dental tools, he barely winces. The result is more than disquieting, but the violence is so visceral and exacting that the reactions may be the last thing viewers think about.

Sadly, aside from keeping names and timelines straight, there’s not much to think about at all. The set pieces begin as quickly as they end, and characters die as abruptly as they were introduced. It’s clear that characters and plot are not the point here ¬— it’s the death. Kitano is a creative puppeteer when it comes to killing people off.

“Outrage” is thrillingly brutal, but as a return to the genre that made him famous, Kitano has made a hollow shell of his previous work. In a way, his direction is like his character: detached, stoic and entranced with violence.

Because of this, viewers will walk away remembering set pieces like the noodle house and the dentist’s office, but not the complex web of clan relations and betrayals. Because of this, “Outrage” loses the richness that keeps other gangster movies compelling. The quiet moments become just empty space between the bloodletting. As a piece of pulp fiction, “Outrage” succeeds with queasy thrills, but as anything more it falls short.