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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 04/16/1998, B: >David Denby gets critical, A: >David Denby gets critical,


No Armani, no marinara, no Joe Pesci: Takeshi Kitano's Japanese mafia flick lacks the quaint iconography of the Sicilian-American fare we were all weaned on. Yet Sonatine achieves a cold, manic brilliance all its own that owes nothing to Coppola or De Laurentiis but nods coyly to Kubrick and Peckinpah.

As with Kitano's first feature, Fireworks, the photography is stunning and often inventive; but Sonatine's story is livelier and more compact. It's the tale of a Tokyo "don" named Murakawa (Kitano) whose boss, Katajima (Tonbo Zushi), has sent him out to Okinawa to referee a dispute. After an ambush leads him to wonder about Katajima's real agenda, Murakawa retreats with his men to a secluded beachhouse, where they play frisbee, drink, and enact their campy version of kabuki dance, waiting to make their move. Their banal activities are balanced beautifully by Murakawa's inscrutable, icy ruthlessness; in one chilling scene he approaches two acolytes shooting Pepsi cans off each other's heads and engages them in a casual game of Russian roulette. The final confrontation between clans is a masterful piece of understatement, underscoring this film's adroit pacing and tension, a mob-violence aesthetic that manages to look surprisingly new. At the Kendall Square.

-- Peg Aloi