Not rated, 103 min. Directed by Takeshi Kitano. Starring Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima.
Like some omnicompetent Buckaroo Banzai of Japanese pop culture, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano services his teeming domestic fan base with a constant output of self-written and -directed films, TV and radio shows, newspaper columns, novels, painting, poetry, and lord knows what else. But until now, the absurdly prolific 50-year-old auteur has hardly breached the perimeter of American cultural awareness, existing for the most part as a passing sub-reference in hipsteroid conversation and journalism. Fireworks, Kitano's multi-award-winning seventh film (but first to be widely released in the U.S.) should fix that. Tenuously related by theme to the Seventies Death Wish genre of films about decent but not-to-be-fucked-with everymen, it's so much more than that in so many ways that few of the standard reference points really apply. Like the wooden puzzle one of its characters constantly manipulates, the film's narrative structure is composed of basic, minimal forms that combine to create a startling variety of dramatic effects. The story deals with converging crises in the lives of a tough, stoic ex-cop named Nishi (Kitano, who looks sort of like an Asian half-brother to Robert Blake). His wife terminally sick, his old recent partner paralyzed in a shooting caused partly by Nishi's absence, and his indebtedness to yakuza mobsters a growing threat to life and limb, Nishi decides to pull a bank heist to solve his money problems and help his near-and-dears. Violence -- vivid, startling, and disturbingly realistic -- occurs at regular intervals. Nishi broods stoically behind ever-present sunshades, marinating in remorse and loathing as he simultaneously plots his crime and attends to his wife and crippled partner. But Fireworks isn't really a caper movie, or a payback movie, or an Eastwoodesque Portrait of the Hardass as a Middle-Aged Man. Critical cop-out though it may seem, you really need to see this film to appreciate the sheer creative vigor that crackles through it like static current inside one of those glass lightning-globe toys. Kitano's distinctiveness isn't expressed in tour de force set-pieces like those of John Woo, nor through stylistic quirks that can readily be imitated and commodified à la Tarantino. Much of the imagination in Fireworks seems lavished on the quiet intervals between the plot turns. An overhead shot of night fireworks fades into one of a massive painting of a flower. Blood drips from a white car onto new-fallen snow. In a serene pointillist painting, a man stares at peaceful cloud banks; by his side is a (recently used?) sword stuck in the dirt. Kitano's wholly original interplay of matter-of-fact savagery, whimsy, surrealism, and pure aesthetic reverie is the freshest thing I've seen in some time. It's the sort of revelatory experience you only need once in a hundred trips to the movies to keep you going back. Efforts to pin down its odd seductive power are as futile as, say, describing the specific sense of disorientation you feel at the instant when a darting cloud suddenly obscures the sun, throwing all your perceptions into a new light before you realize what's happened. Disquieting, but subtly consciousness-expanding. Just see the movie.
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