Premise: In post World War II Japan, an American former prisoner-of-war rises in the yakuza.
About: “The Outsider” finished 4th on last year’s Black List. Writer Andrew Baldwin hasn’t done any major work that I’ve heard of up until “Outsider,” but he did script a draft of the in-development remake of “Logan’s Run.” The last rumor had “Safe House” helmer Daniel Espinosa directing “Outsider” with a dream-casted Michael Fassbender starring as Nick.
Writer: Andrew Baldwin
Details: 125 pages, June 2011 draft
I must confess, I don’t know much about the Yakuza other than that they have a really cool name: THE YAKUZA! I like it so much, in fact, I’m thinking of naming my first kid after it. “Yakuza!” It has such a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
But here’s the reason this Yakuza script has been sitting near the top of last year’s Black List and 10 months later I still haven’t reviewed it: I don’t connect with the crime genre. When a bunch of tough guys are trying to out-tough each other with toughness – when that’s the focus – I can’t get into it. I need some heart. I need something to relate to in the characters. And the crime genre is more about honor and codes and stuff that really doesn’t interest me. Every once in awhile, if a writer can come at the genre from a unique angle, I can be entertained for a couple of hours, but that’s about as much as I can hope for. I’m never going to think of one of these scripts as amazing.
With that said, The Outsider is one of the few crime scripts that does come at the genre from a different angle. We’re not dealing with the 15 hundredth movie about the Italian mafia. We’re dealing with the first movie about a guy rising up through the Yakuza in 1954. Was it a little too familiar? Ehhhhh, probably. There were times where you could’ve laid in scenes from Goodfellas, Casino, Carlito’s Way, etc., and no one would’ve noticed. But there were also moments where I genuinely felt like I was learning about the unique culture that is the Yakuza.
The Outsider begins on a train in 1954 Osaka, Japan (hey, just like yesterday’s script!). The car we focus on is filled with prisoners being transported to their new prison. One of those prisoners stands out, as he is the only Caucasion in the bunch. His name is Nick. He’s 30 years old. And what’s spooky about the dude is that he actually seems okay with where he’s at.
There’s a reason for that. Nick has gone AWOL since the war after murdering his commander who did something terrible (you’ll have to take Baldwin’s word for it since we never find out what the commander did). But the American military sees it differently. They see Nick as the bad guy, and they want to try him. Which is why Nick’s fled and is now hiding out in Japan. In a prison. In a Very. Bad. Prison.
It’s at this prison where Nick gets all Mike Tyson on some big Japanese oaf who dares test him in front of the other prisoners. Nick gouges his eyes out, blinding the man, and just like that he has the respect of everyone in prison. But it’s Nick’s cell mate, Kiyoshi, who pays the incident the most mind. You see, Kiyoshi is part of one of the biggest crime families around, the Matsuoka Family, and he decides it wouldn’t hurt to have a crazy-ass motherfucker like Nick around to do some dirty work.
So when Nick’s released, Kiyoshi snatches him up, and pretty soon Nick’s hitting up the locals for the Matsuokas, unafraid to beat them into a pulp to get his point across. He soon becomes feared in the real world as well, and as a result becomes one of the rare Americans accepted into a Yakuza family.
It would be nice to celebrate such a feat, but the nature of living in this reality is that your’e never safe. And the Matsuoka’s much bigger and badder rivals, the Seizus, start getting a little testy when Nick begins throwing his weight around town. They blame Akihiro, the leader of the family, and pretty soon, the two sides find themselves on the eve of war.
As if inadvertently leading your new employers into a war they didn’t want wasn’t bad enough, Nick also ends up falling in love with a beautiful but dangerous woman named Miyu, who happens to be the sister of Kiyoshi, Nick’s biggest ally. Kiyoshi only had one rule when he brought Nick into his world: Don’t fuck my sister. So a big fat “oops” on that count. This means Nick will not only have to figure out a diplomatic way to end this war, but if he doesn’t, he’ll need to protect Miyu from the Seizus, protect himself from Kiyoshi, and protect the Matsuokas from his big ass mistake. I’m not going to give anything away here, but the nature of this genre is that things end badly, and I’m guessing The Outsider is no exception.
I’m glad this one popped into my reading pile because it takes a storytelling angle I didn’t talk about in my “Storytelling vs. Writing” article. If you remember, I said that most stories are run by either two engines: character goals or mysteries. If you aren’t using one of those, your story probably isn’t very interesting.
The “Rise Up/Crime” genre is one of the exceptions to this rule. There’s rarely a concrete goal in these scripts. And there’s rarely a mystery either. It’s more about watching a protagonist rise up through the ranks of an organization. Goodfellas is another example. Or Scarface. There’s something about watching someone rise to power that’s exciting. I can’t exactly explain why – maybe it’s because we know that sooner or later they have to fall – but it definitely works.
Except you know me. I need those goals and those mysteries to keep me going. I need more of a story than “guy rises up” to get my juices flowing. And The Outsider didn’t have that. It had a unique backdrop. It had authenticity. And I guess there was a little mystery as far as our main character’s past. But other than that it was pretty straightforward. Guy rises up in Yakuza. No twists. No turns. That was it.
To Baldwin’s credit, however, he did infuse his script with TONS of conflict – essential for this kind of movie. Remember, you’re always looking to make things tough for your hero (have them encountering conflict). If you’re not doing that, then you’re not entertaining us. We had the Seizu, the rival family pushing up against Nick. We had Nick’s past (his court martial) pushing up against him. We had Orochi, a brash young member of the Matsuoka family who doesn’t like Nick. And we had Miyu, the girl he falls in love with who he can’t fall in love with because he’ll betray his only friend in the family. Conflict leads to drama. Drama leads to entertainment. So The Outsider was strong in that respect.
But yeah, where The Outsider fell apart for me was the third act. And it’s not surprising. When you don’t have a goal or a mystery, you don’t have a clear-cut finale. Think about it. If your protagonist isn’t going after something (i.e. the Ark in Raiders) then you don’t have anything for him to do in the third act. Or if there isn’t some big mystery we want answers to, then there’s nothing to reveal in the third act (what the Ark does).
This is what really hurt The Outsider. Its characters are basically reacting – waiting for the other crime family to make a move. And making reactive characters interesting is a lot harder to do than making active characters interesting. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done. I think this is similar to how Goodfellas ends, but it’s just not my thing. I like characters who are active, who are going after things (goals) and there just wasn’t enough of that here. For that reason, despite recognizing this as a very well-written script, I couldn’t personally get into it.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The power of the Underdog in this genre. Without a goal or a mystery, you’re stacking the storytelling odds against you. However, if you can give us a protagonist we love, we won’t mind as much that there aren’t any goals or mysteries. Why? Because we’ll follow a likable hero through anything. And what’s the easiest way to make a likable character? Make them an underdog! Audiences LOVE underdogs. Nick is as big of an underdog as they get. An American prisoner in a Japanese prison – someone everyone hates, despises, wants nothing to do with. You’ll see this underdog quality in all of these types of movies, from Goodfellas to Scarface to The Godfather. If you’re going to write one of these “rise up” movies, make your lead an underdog. I promise you it will pay off.