Under his stage name "Beat" Takeshi, middle-aged Japanese superstar Kitano plays Yamamoto, one of his typical tough guy characters, a Yakuza warmonger who is forced to flee Japan after a Yakuza alliance decides he's better off dead. So where else should he go but Los Angeles, where his younger half-brother (Claude Maki) has adopted hip hop style and deals drugs with some black buddies (chief among them Omar Epps)? No sooner does Yamamoto (whose nickname "Aniki" - Japanese for "Older Brother" - is a term of respect for high-ranking Yakuza officers) arrive than he starts setting up his own gang, eager to spray bullets at whatever organized crime units get in his way.

It's pretty obvious that this film is meant to bring Kitano's work to a wider American audience, though whether the reticent Kitano, who is arguably Japan's top star (think Clint Eastwood times ten - he is also a novelist, composer, comedian, painter and TV panelist), actually has any interest in this himself is unknown. It's probably more likely that Sony Pictures Classics' wanted to make some money off a gangster film while capitalizing on Kitano's high-art credibility.

Whatever the case, Brother is a good introduction to Kitano's work, though it's hardly his best. (The shattering Fireworks holds that honor.) Kitano makes unsettlingly serene films about gangsters and crooked cops, with sudden bursts of extreme violence peppering his elegant, deliberately-paced narrative. Brother contains much more bloodshed - and a much weaker story - than his previous films, and the American actors, save Epps, aren't very good (Kitano, who doesn't speak English, admitted to "not really directing" the American cast).

The upside is that the evocative, jazzy score is wonderful, and it is interesting to see such a distinctive Japanese filmmaker's take on the American landscape, especially working within the crime film genre. But if the strange lapses in story logic and uninteresting supporting characters put you off, don't judge Kitano's work by it: his other films are much richer and more nuanced. Still, Brother's a decent effort.