Pyrokinesis (Cross Fire in Japan) is a frustrating mixture of good and bad elements, a solid premise dragged down by needlessly hammy emotional moments and outright clumsy direction. I’m fairly sure this isn’t a case of things getting lost in translation, just weak filmmaking.
The story’s an adaptation of Miyuki Miyabe’s novel, which I read and enjoyed in its recent paperback edition in English. Miyabe’s book is like a more adult version of Stephen King’s Firestarter—it begins, in some sense, where King’s book left off, and gives us a woman in her twenties who uses her powers of pyrokinesis to exact justice. I liked the way it kept the story firmly anchored in reality, and used its premise as a way to mull over the concept of revenge in a society where many crimes go unpunished.
Now we have the movie, directed by Shusuke Kaneko (of the recent Gamera movies, Death Note and the amazingly still-unreleased-here My Soul Is Slashed), which follows many of the same plot elements and moral conundrums, but trashes all its best moments by following them up with borderline-incompetent ones. It’s like watching two versions of the same movie by different directors, edited together at random: one version subtle and thoughtful, the other strident and histrionic. Both of them lose, as what we end up with isn’t good enough to be genuinely interesting and not quite bad enough to be funny.
The plot involves Junko (the pyrokinetic girl, played by Akiko Yada), in her twenties, living alone but growing incrementally closer to a male co-worker. She’s also uncomfortably conscious of her abilities, and there’s an amusing moment early in the movie when she has to “discharge” her pent-up power by boiling away the water in a municipal swimming pool. When her friend’s sister is killed by a gang of thugs she goes out to get revenge on his behalf, but it isn’t that easy—especially since one of the cops on her tail may have a peripheral connection with her when she was young and still quite deadly.
Pieces of the movie work. The female detective pursuing Junko, Ishizu (Kaori Momoi) is one of the best characters: skeptical, quirky, amused, blessed with some truly hilarious lines (“Don’t look at me like that—you remind me of my dog”) and loaded with a roster of little tics that make her into a fully-rounded person, not just a placeholder for the plot. And the climax is a suitably impressive bit of pyrotechnics in an amusement park, although the director opted for one of those annoying endings where perhaps certain people aren’t really dead after all.
As good as any individual piece of the movie is, they’re undermined by so many other parts it becomes wearying. The fire effects are technically competent, but they’re deployed with an utter lack of taste or subtlety—whenever someone’s burned to death, it looks more comical than horrific, and goes on at such length that it becomes distracting (i.e., why is he still screaming?). One scene involving Junko “overheating” in front of her boyfriend is handled so badly I’m amazed it made it into the final print. The worst element of the movie as a whole is a horribly mickey-moused musical score that beats home every emotional accent with the subtlety of a crowbar to the side of the face.
It’s a shame, because the good parts of the movie point the way towards how this could have been handled as a whole, and make Pyrokinesis all the more disappointing. There’s a moment where the other detective describes his brother’s death by fire that has more potency than anything the movie shows us. I thought, start the whole thing over from that scene, and maybe you’d really go somewhere.
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