Sequels are usually worse than the films they’re based on since the motivation for making them is often to cash in, not blaze new cinematic trails.

“The Godfather: Part II” is a notable exception to that rule and so is “Last of the Wolves,” Kazuya Shiraishi’s hardboiled follow-up to his 2018 actioner, “The Blood of Wolves.” That old-school cops-versus-gangsters film won a long list of awards, including best actor prizes for star Koji Yakusho, playing Shogo “Gami” Ogami, a scruffy Hiroshima detective who gets results by chucking out the rule book.

Based on Yuko Yuzuki’s 2015 novel, the new film begins in 1991, three years after “The Blood of Wolves.” This time the protagonist is Shuichi Hioka (Tori Matsuzaka), who was once Gami’s straight-arrow protege but has since adopted his deceased mentor’s maverick persona. He is bent on carrying out his predecessor’s plan to keep the peace between once-warring Odani and Itako gangs.

Last of the Wolves (Korou no Chi Level 2)
Run Time 139 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Aug. 20

Acquaintance with the first film is recommended, if not essential, since the sequel focuses on the clash between Shuichi and Shigehiro Uebayashi (Ryohei Suzuki), an Itako gangster who leaves prison after serving a stretch for murder, determined to avenge his now-dead boss by destroying his old Odani enemies.

Similar to Robert De Niro’s young Vito Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II,” Shigehiro is a cold-blooded killer, but his true spiritual twin is Rikio Ishikawa, the mad dog gangster played by Tetsuya Watari in Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 classic, “Graveyard of Honor.” Shiraishi has also drawn inspiration from “Battles Without Honor and Humanity,” Fukasaku’s 1973-74 series based on real-life gang wars in Hiroshima and the nearby city of Kure.

In fact, like its predecessor, “Last of the Wolves” could be called a homage to that seminal series, which exposed the falsity of the noble outlaw heroes found in many earlier gang films. It even borrows Fukasaku’s device of using a dulcet-toned narrator to give news-bulletin-like commentary over on-screen events. But the film generates a power of its own, in action scenes that feel real and in-the-moment, from the force of the blows to the depth of the psychotic rage on display.

It’s not that “Last of the Wolves” is devoid of humor: Confronted by Shigehiro’s ruthless savagery, his foes comically quail or flee. And the film turns unabashedly poignant as the untimely death of a Shigehiro victim leads to guilt for one survivor and anger and heartbreak for another. The situation is a genre standard, but working from Junya Ikegami’s script, Shiraishi drills down to the raw emotional core.

The complications of the film’s gang power struggles may confuse newcomers, but the story boils down to Shuichi’s frantic efforts to keep the peace and Shigehiro’s crazed campaign to violently end it. As Shuichi, Matsuzaka is not the standard cop on a mission: He is too sweaty, too desperate, too clearly in over his head. In other words, he is exactly what the role requires.

In Shigehiro, Suzuki has created one of the genre’s great psychopaths. Yes, he has his reasons, beginning with an abusive childhood that culminated in him murdering his parents, but he takes cruel, skin-crawling pleasure in torturing his victims, while his drive for dominance and vengeance is terrifying in its dead-eyed relentlessness. This is a wolf — and a film — with a bite.

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