An energetic road movie that keeps careening off in unexpected directions, “Heaven’s Burning” is by far the most ambitious and successful pic yet from Adelaide-based genre helmer Craig Lahiff. Working for the first time with what is, by Aussie standards, a generous budget, Lahiff struts his stuff with vigor aided by a screenplay by Louis Nowra that makes a point of keeping the audience off-balance. With two strongly limned Japanese characters in principal roles, this Al Clark-Helen Leake production should perform well in Asian-Pacific territories, with robust chances elsewhere wherever high-quality action films perform.
The opening scenes, set in Sydney at night, establish a potent mood as neon lights flash across the beautiful, anxious face of a young Japanese woman, Midori (Youki Kudoh), who is honeymooning with her uptight businessman husband, Yukio (Kenji Isomura). In a series of brisk, classically constructed widescreen images, Lahiff, cinematographer Brian Breheny and composers Graeme Koehne and Michael Atkinson suggest something is seriously wrong, and it’s no surprise when Midori disappears from her hotel suite, an apparent kidnap victim.
As a couple of Sydney cops, Bishop (Anthony Phelan) and Moffat (Matthew Dyktynski), quiz the stunned bridegroom, a bellhop reveals that the kidnapping was faked. Midori, already disillusioned with her new husband, arranged her own disappearance and is in hiding waiting for the arrival of her lover from Japan. He, however, is a no-show, and the young bride finds herself stranded in a strange city while the media in Japan have a field day with Yukio’s loss of face.
Pic makes its next leap forward when Midori, changing money in a city bank, is kidnapped by Mahood (Robert Mammone) and his brother Gullbuddin, Afghani Moslem gangsters attempting an armed heist, which goes fatally wrong. The brothers’ driver, a loner named Colin (Russell Crowe), manages to smash his way out of the city, and intervenes when the brothers are about to kill Midori, accidentally killing Gullbuddin in the process.
Colin and the terrified but resourceful Midori take to the dusty road, heading for the isolated, drought-stricken farm where Colin grew up and where his elderly father, Cam (Ray Barrett), lives a lonely, bitter life. In hot pursuit are the two lawmen, Mahood and his brutal father, Boorjan (Petru Gheorghiu), a veteran of the Afghani secret police, and the by-now totally deranged Yukio. The spurned husband, driven crazy by the humiliations he’s suffered, kills his friend and interpreter, shaves his head and heads off after the couple, riding a motorbike, dressed in black leather and carrying a large gun.
The journey that follows contains plenty of action and suspense, but Lahiff also takes time to explore a number of oddball characters the fugitives, and later the pursuers, meet along the road, including a crippled accordion player (Colin Hay), a drug-addicted, palm-reading hairdresser (Susan Prior) and a blowzy barmaid (Kate Fitzpatrick). The scenes involving these marginal characters effectively combine raffish humor with a doomed romanticism.
As Cam, a man who’s so lonely he takes Polaroid pics of himself and displays them on his wall, Barrett gives a touching performance until, in a critical scene, he’s called upon to deliver a crude anti-Japanese tirade that seems included purely for shock value.
As the journey continues, pic veers from the realism of the early scenes toward a wild, poetic fantasy in which the fugitives (who, of course, become lovers along the way) are given the romantic stature of Tristan and Isolde (with the “Liebestod” booming out at the climax). This classic romanticism explains some of the over-the-top elements in the later stages, particularly Yukio’s astonishing transformation.
Crowe effectively portrays the basically decent Colin, who finds himself up to his ears in trouble and involved with a singularly exotic and resourceful woman.
But the film belongs to Kudoh, who already made an international mark in Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train,” and who’s splendid here as the deeply romantic woman who snatches a new chance at love and passion. A scene in which she buys secondhand formal outfits for herself and Colin in a shabby shop run by a blind man (Norman Kaye) is just one of yarn’s lovely moments.
Lahiff goes overboard in the violence stakes on a couple of occasions, but is assured when it comes to maintaining tension. Breheny’s camerawork is always inventive, John Scott’s editing precise and the music score a major asset, with its combination of Japanese themes and classical allusions. All other credits are crackerjack.