Fireworks is the seventh film of writer-director-editor Takeshi Kitano, a meditative action flick whose unlikely combination of nihilistic violence and lyrical, eliding camera work results in something like the melding of the sensitivities of John Woo and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Kitano also plays the lead, an understandably taciturn ex-cop named Nishi whose child has recently died, whose wife is dying of leukemia and whose best friend, a fellow cop named Horibe (Ren Osugi), is confined to a wheelchair as the result of a shooting Nishi feels responsible for. This is a man whose life has been hollowed out by violence and whose lethal temper, now that the few people he cares about have been blighted, has taken on a suicidal dimension. He's in debt to a Yakuza (roughly, the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia) loan shark, and not only does he not care, he baits and batters the greasy thugs the mob sends out to strong-arm him. With nothing to lose, he decides to pull off a bank job, settle with the Yakuza and give the rest to Horibe and a young cop's widow he's befriended.
Kitano plays Nishi as the familiar Eastwoodian hero, a man of few words (I doubt if he speaks more than two dozen in the entire film) but with endless resources and almost mystical nerve, able to ram a chopstick into a man's eye or stare down the barrel of a gun with equal aplomb.
But what keeps the movie from being just another gratifyingly hard-edged tale of retribution is the odd mood of wintry contemplation which Kitano sustains, with the occasional outbursts of violence and somewhat sadistic humor being only punctuating asides. Nishi's murderous rage is no longer cathartic, it's simply an old habit he falls back on. And his macho code is no longer a shield; death is both closing in all around him and growing inside him, and it's his knowledge of this which informs the film's mood of sad resignation.
Kitano, who is famous in Japan not only as a director but as a writer, former comedian and TV personality, seems to have entered a new genre -- the post-action film -- which explores the numbed emptiness that remains after all the blood has flowed and the bodies have been carted away.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.