Fireworks is the first Takeshi Kitano film I knew about. I remember seeing the ad, when Joe and I saw the revival of Mean Streets at the Nuart. The trailer struck me in two ways: the striking use of color, and the calmness of the composition. Sold as a cop thriller and seen as a latter-day Dirty Harry, Fireworks is good because it defies expectation. Because of its root elements, or the way they’re executed, the film is unique.

Part of the film comes straight out of cop movie convention, or variations thereof. Kitano (who wrote, directed and edited) plays Nishi, an ex-cop full of guilt that his negligence got a partner killed and got another one confined to a wheelchair. His wife is sick, and his debts to the Yakuza are deep. We learn of this last when two Yakuza henchmen accost him in a bar. Nishi pokes one of their eyes out with a chopstick.

The violence in Fireworks is celebrated but overplayed. Most noteworthy is the suggestive road taken. We get the anticipation and the aftermath, but almost none of the actual violence. Look at the knife fight. Kitano walks through a parking lot, takes his jacket off and wraps it around his hand. A couple of thugs stand by his car. He approaches them. Cut to Thug 1, pulling a knife. Cut to Kitano, moving forward. Now Thug 2, who watches, passive. The knife is thrown to the side; Thug 1 is on the ground. Only later, when Kitano drives away, do we see the bloody cuts on his hand. Of course, we say, he grabbed the knife right out of the thug’s hand. Anticipation and aftermath is the key visual strategy.

Kitano plays men at the end of their rope, men who are increasingly desperate and hopeless. In Violent Cop and Boiling Point, suicidal violence is the way out. The hero’s significant other (be it a sister or a girlfriend) is an adjunct to the action – there, but ultimately unimportant. In Kids Return and A Scene At The Sea, the relationship is all-important. In Fireworks, Nishi spends the money stolen from the Yakuza (and a bank) to give comfort to his handicapped partner in the form of paints. He also spends it on himself. Instead of going after pointless revenge or false and futile self-empowerment, he goes on a vacation.

To see Fireworks as a gangster film a la John Woo is to miss the point entirely. Woo is a master of style, but his narratives are simple divisions of good and evil. You always know who the good guys are. He uses characters to stage his action scenes. In Fireworks, Kitano comes face to face (coolly and compassionately) with utter tension. For all the ugliness of its violence and the downbeat ending, Fireworks is beautiful because it understands the humanity that can reside in a man, even when his actions are distasteful and deplorable. It’s the difference between pretty images and a beautiful film. When something bleeds, it’s alive, and Kitano finds that life here.

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