Shooting Pain

Set it off: Takeshi Kitano in Fireworks

Fireworks
Parkway Theater, starts Friday

After Pulp Fiction and Face/Off--or, more to the point, Keys to Tulsa and Con Air--even the most bloodthirsty of movie thrill-seekers might wonder if the ol' ultra-V has lost its rat-a-tat-tat. For the filmmaker, the question is whether it's possible in an era of cartoon carnage to represent violence in a way that the viewer can actually feel. Fireworks not only answers in the affirmative but deepens the question: How to convey the lingering pain of violence, when the bullet's piercing bite gives way to a dull, excruciating ache?

The central bloodbath in Fireworks is a shootout in a Tokyo mall involving a sweaty menage of cops and yakuza. But this primal scene is more abstract than explosive, coming to us in bits and pieces through the fractured psyche of Nishi (Takeshi Kitano), a former detective who survived the slaughter. The first time we see it, the shootout passes quickly and in total silence: Two men are writhing on a white-tile floor when a bullet suddenly rips through one man's lower back, spraying thick gobs of blood just as Nishi, in the present, covers his face to avert this recollection. In the next flashback, we see a third man's body torn apart and Nishi, bleeding from his mouth, reacting in shock. But only when the massacre unfolds for the third time do we discover where the shots came from and how Nishi survived--mirroring the way in which the most destructive horror is never fully understood until much later. Accordingly, this final flashback ends with a shot of the ex-cop staring impassively through dark shades, the roar of gunfire continuing to echo through his memory.

As written and directed by its star, Fireworks blows the summer-movie competition to kingdom come. Compared to Kitano, Bruce Willis is a wimp, Harrison Ford is a creep, and Mel Gibson is a joke. Fireworks cuts through the vulgarity of Hollywood action by addressing the consequences of violence, real and represented. It's also a film of enormous beauty and depth, at once mysterious, lush, poignant, and cool, with Kitano pouring these moods into the elliptical narrative and funneling them through his own inscrutable deadpan.

The actor's stone face is not only a crucial element of the film's complexity but a haunting reminder of its autobiographical edge. In 1994, at the height of Kitano's celebrity in Japan (where he's also a hyper-prolific author, painter, and TV personality known as "Beat" Takeshi), a motorcycle crash left the right side of his face partially paralyzed. This accident seems to have left a mark on Kitano's art as well. His 1993 neo-yakuza thriller Sonatine was a brooding piece of work, but the new film is even more so, fixated as it is on the fragility of the human body and the inevitability of pain and death.

The ex-cop's silent longing to reverse this natural order of things is what gives Fireworks the weight of tragedy. Gradually we discover that one of Nishi's fellow cops was killed in the shootout; that his best friend, Horibe (Ren Osugi), was paralyzed from the waist down in another yakuza ambush; and that his wife, Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), is suffering a terminal case of leukemia, the same disease that recently claimed their young daughter. Thus acting out of an apparent sense of guilt and responsibility that he never articulates (indeed, the Kitano persona is more laconic than Eastwood's Man With No Name), Nishi uses the proceeds from a bank heist to support the dead cop's widow, set up his friend with art supplies, and take his wife on a rare vacation. While Horibe copes by immersing himself in his gorgeously vibrant paintings (which are actually the filmmaker's own), Nishi perfects the "art" of his hair-trigger temper, swiftly and brutally dispatching a slew of enemies in order to steal a few moments of peace with his wife before the end.

Neither as bleak nor as psychologically causal as it sounds, Fireworks is shot through with flickers of gentle humor and irony: The couple's road trip to Mount Fuji, with Nishi's silly card tricks and his wife's simple, heartbreaking "Thank you," returns them to the land of the living even as it signals the end of the line. Kitano's art thrives on dichotomies--freedom and immobility, calm vs. chaos, passion at odds with reserve--and in fact the two poles of this contemplative action film are represented in its Japanese title, Hana-bi: hana meaning "flower" and bi meaning "fire." So as Kitano's vibrant creation sputters to a close, fireworks become its central image and perhaps even a metaphor for cinema itself: an explosion of sight and sound, passing in an instant but burning in the memory. No wonder this film about the persistence of vision ends with the image of a girl who will never forget the terrible beauty of what she's seen.

 
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