Jared Leto's New Netflix Crime Thriller 'The Outsider' Is Even Worse Than 'Bright'
There's a scene in The Outsider, Netflix's tepid crime thriller riffing on Japanese yakuza films, where a gangster approaches Jared Leto's stoic anti-hero and compliments his appearance. More specifically, he says Leto, possessor of cheekbones possibly forged on the sides of mountains and skin likely moisturized with fresh infant tears, has a "cute face" and compares him to a "little white kitten." Later, someone says to Leto, "Your skin is so soft -- should I lick it?" These exchanges speak to a fundamental truth we all know by now: Jared Leto is a very, very hot man.
Unfortunately, The Outsider is a dull vehicle for that hotness. Arriving mere months after Netflix's last movie-star-driven project, the cops-vs-magical-creatures action saga Bright, The Outsider is actually worse than that Will Smith trainwreck, which was widely derided by critics as one of the worst movies of last year. (Audiences seemed to enjoy it more: Bright 2 is currently in the works.) Where Bright at least had a meat-headed sense of humor to go with its unearned sense of self-importance, The Outsider is needlessly cruel, dour, and slow. No amount of brooding from a handsome leading man can save it.
How did the movie end up on Netflix? After beginning life as a spec on the 2011 Blacklist, writer Andrew Baldwin's script was first circled as a possible Michael Fassbender project at Warner Bros., before it was developed by Tom Hardy and prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, who might have brought a sinister edge to the material. In what now looks like a savvy move, Hardy and Miike bailed on the film in 2014. Two years later, Leto was announced as the lead with Martin Zandvliet (Land of Mine) directing. Netflix scooped up worldwide distribution rights at the end of 2016, but few paid any attention to the film until the trailer dropped earlier this year and generated controversy for being yet another example of a Hollywood film about Asian culture with a white protagonist. It feels like a movie that exists to fill a content bucket: If you're pacing yourself to put out 80 movies in a year, there's going to be some slop.
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?
It's also hard to see why Leto signed up for the part. Even at the age of 46, decades after he first rose to national prominence as the teen heartthrob Jordan Catalano on My So Called Life, the actor still looks like the rock star he plays onstage in 30 Seconds to Mars. But as an onscreen performer, Leto has increasingly displayed a degree of self-awareness about how his dreamy features might distract from his desire to be taken seriously as an actor: In late '90s and early '00s movies like Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and Panic Room, he sought roles that subverted -- or at least playfully toyed -- with his sex symbol status. It gave the appearance of an artist battling his own vanity and undermining his own beauty.
As he became more ambitious as an actor, he was both mocked more in the press and showered with accolades. In 2007's Chapter 27 he gained 67 pounds to play John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman -- and earned brutal reviews for his troubles -- but in 2013 he lost 30 pounds to play a trans woman with HIV in the Dallas Buyers Club and was rewarded by Hollywood with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He followed up that role with high profile, eccentric supporting parts as psychotic villains in both Suicide Squad and last year's Blade Runner 2049. The main constant is that a Jared Leto performance promises a transformation. Even when he's in trash, he's committed.
In The Outsider, he's playing the type of unflappable, violent loner Ryan Gosling has portrayed in movies like Drive and Only God Forgives. It's an awkward fit. Gosling, like Brad Pitt before him, is more comfortable with his movie star appearance. Leto wants to be shedding his skin at all times, setting fire to his persona like the Joker burning a pile of money, but The Outsider is such a grim, down-the-middle B-movie that it won't let him. He's left gazing out of the screen with his piercing blue eyes, a prisoner of his own poor career-planning. Unlike you, he can't hit the pause button and watch something else.