At its Melbourne Film Festival unveiling – where it lacked a contentious monologue about racial issues now restored – Heaven's Burning was introduced by its writer Louis Nowra as "a cross between Tristan and Isolde and Sam Fuller".
The Wagnerian reference is clear enough in the wash of music plastered unsubtly over the final scene. But where, exactly, is the spirit of America's B movie maestro, who specialised in lurid, pulp, highly political action-melodrama?
The answer, sadly, is: nowhere. This Australian film's understanding of the living history of genre, action and exploitation is pitifully shallow. Yes, it tries to concoct a volatile brew of race, class, law, crime, sex and violence. And yes, it is not afraid to show off a little high-speed motion and visceral thrills.
But Nowra and director Craig Lahiff trade less on grand memories of Hollywood's B cinema than a lamely fashionable string of borrowings from recent successes like Pulp Fiction (1994) and Thelma and Louise (1991).
The story takes forever to get going. Midori (Youki Kudoh), a seemingly timid, young Japanese bride, has ditched her husband whilst travelling through Australia. After disconcertingly finding herself the target of a group of vicious Afghan kidnappers, Midori manages to escape with the help of Colin (Russell Crowe), a petty crim with a conscience.
And then we are onto the familiar terrain of the contemporary action road movie: lovers on the run, with various parties lawful and otherwise in hot pursuit.
On this road, Heaven's Burning is closer to the oft-clumsy True Love and Chaos (1997) than the satisfyingly clever Kiss or Kill (1997). The central, inter-racial relationship – marked by Midori's embarrassing cry to the clear, blue Aussie sky of "I can breathe!", and a couple of terrible sex scenes – is neither convincing nor involving.
The various plot threads are alternated indifferently, and the obligatory attempt at familial pathos (centred on a bizarre father figure played by Ray Barrett) is execrable.
Every now and then this film revs up – in a spectacularly tasteless moment of accidental slaughter (the Tarantino touch), and in the motif of sudden switches in character (the transformation of Midori's husband from businessman to road warrior is especially tasty).
But, these few moments aside, Heaven's Burning is a mess – and another black star in the sky of Australian cinema in the '90s.
MORE Nowra/Lahiff: Black and White
© Adrian Martin November 1997