Think twice before you piss off Detective Yoshitaka Nishi (Takeshi Kitano): He may not be an obvious hothead like some of his colleagues, but when those quiet ones snap it's chopstick in the eye time, as one incautious tough guy learns the hard way. Nishi has just about reached the limit of his endurance. He blames himself for the death of Detective Tanaka (Makoto Ashikawa) in a bloody shootout at a mall. His wife Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto), who never recovered emotionally from the death of their only child, is terminally ill and has been discharged from the hospital to die. His best friend Horibe (Ren Osugi), paralyzed from the waist down by a gangster's bullet, has been abandoned by his family and is contemplating suicide. And on top of everything else, he's barely making ends meet on his policeman's salary.

After a particularly grim visit with Horibe, Nishi decides he's had enough. He buys Horibe a box full of art supplies so he can try his hand at painting-pretty much the only thing he seemed to be interested in other than drowning himself-and robs a bank so he can take Miyuki on a last holiday trip to Japan's country shrines. It probably doesn't need to be said that things don't go well, but unless you're familiar with Kitano's earlier films, it may come as a surprise just how badly they work out.

Known in the U.S. primarily for his supporting roles in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and Johnny Mnemonic, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano is a pop culture tsunami in his native Japan: TV star, cultural commentator, actor, comedian (he acts under the name 'Beat' Takeshi, a holdover from his days as half of a stand-up comedy duo called The Two Beats), novelist and all-around enfant terrible, assuming it's possible to be an enfant anything when you're 50 years old and have spent more than 20 of them in the spotlight. He's also something pretty close to a one-man band as a filmmaker: He wrote, directed, co-edited and stars in Fireworks (Hana-Bi), and also painted the cheerfully bizarre images attributed to amateur artist Horibe, people and animals with brilliant flowers blooming where their heads should be. Kitano took up painting in 1994, while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident in which he nearly died.

Fireworks is the first Kitano feature to get a U.S. theatrical release (Miramax is bringing out his 1993 Sonatine later this year), and it's a prickly picture, filled with the bizarre juxtapositions of brutal violence, sentimental drama and goofy humor that have become Kitano's trademark. Fireworks is also structured in a deliberately disorienting fashion, flashbacks intruding on the present-day narrative without warning and without explanation: If you don't pay attention, you won't have the faintest idea what's going on, except that it involves a lot of blood.

But it's worth the effort. Kitano's morose, alienated take on what could be a standard-issue cops-and-gangsters tale is simultaneously coolly stylized and surprisingly emotionally persuasive. Yes, the scenes involving Nishi and his wife feel weirdly cloying at first, especially when you compare them with the jarringly violent sequences in between. But by the time you realize where it's all going, it's pretty tough to get that constricted feeling out of your throat. As an actor, Kitano affects tiny little sunglasses, sleek suits and an air of hip indifference worthy of Tarantino (who is, it almost goes without saying, a big fan), but it's just the fragile crust over a simmering tar pit of existential angst-one false step and down you go. As a director, he favors deceptively serene long shots and rejects the rapid-fire editing that characterizes most American crime movies. But the superficial tranquility is misleading: Once Kitano has pulled the rug out from under you a couple of times, you start anxiously scanning every new image, trying to figure out where the poisonous surprise is coming from. And there's always a poisonous surprise, right up to the very end. Be warned.

--Maitland McDonagh