The story begins with Leto's Nick, a stoic ex-GI in the mold of Steve McQueen or Clint Eastwood, serving time in a Japanese prison in 1954 Japan. One of the movie's few admirable traits is how little backstory it gives you about Nick. One minute he's scratching his beard and scrubbing the floors, the next he's getting recruited by his cellmate Kiyoshi (the understated Tadanobu Asano) to help botch a suicide attempt that will get him transferred out of the facility and eventually released by his powerful Yakuza family. Nick goes along with the plan, holding a hand to Kiyoshi's bleeding belly, and soon enough he's also a free man. He leaves the jail with a clean shave, hair slicked back, and a pair of aviators hanging from the neck of his crisp, white T-shirt.
Instead of kicking off a lucrative male-modeling career, Nick gets recruited by Kiyoshi to serve as an enforcer for his crew. In one of the movie's more egregious scenes, Nick proves his macho bona fides by confronting an American factory boss who slings a series of ugly slurs and behaves like a boorish, racist goon. You're clearly supposed to hate this guy, and with good reason: he's horrible. Nick responds by beating him over the head with a typewriter, proving that he's actually the good white character in this movie. It's one of the many moments in the film that's clearly designed to appear clever or provocative. But it mostly plays as a cynical, face-saving maneuver to shield the filmmakers from charges of racism.
From there, Nick acquires a nice suit, gets shown the ropes at various bars and gambling establishments, and stabs many people in the neck as he rises up the ranks in the yakuza. He also strikes up a romance with Kiyoshi's sister Miyu (Shiori Kutsuna), the only woman with a speaking part in the whole movie. The courtship between these two is absurdly clipped -- a movie this testosterone-fueled clearly doesn't have time for scenes where people talk about their feelings -- and fails to generate much heat. Leto has more chemistry with the knife he uses to chop off his own fingers.
He performs this act of self-mutilation to pay tribute to the yakuza's boss, who soon finds himself in the midst of a quickly escalating gang-war. This is the kind of movie where a character will say, "It's a beautiful day," and you just know some act of graphic violence is about to be committed seconds later. The assassinations, betrayals, and criminal schemes will be rote to anyone familiar with the genre, and the fights are so stripped-down it won't appeal to action fans. It's hard to see what algorithmic box this checks for Netflix: Recommended if you liked The Last Samurai but also really loved Prefontaine? Movies with unnecessary sumo wrestling scenes? Films where Emile Hirsch plays an asshole?