Heaven’s Burning Review

In the first of two reviews of Australian DVDs starring Russell Crowe, Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 4 release of Heaven’s Burning, a watchable but unditinguished lovers-on-the-run thriller. Magna Pacific’s disc has indifferent picture and sound but some worthwhile extras.

Midori (Youki Kudoh) is on honeymoon in Sydney with a husband, Yukio (Kenji Isomura), that she doesn’t love. So she fakes her own kidnapping. When a rendezvous with a former lover fails to happen, she finds herself alone. Taken hostage in a bank robbery, she is saved by the getaway driver, Colin (Russell Crowe). The two of them flee across Australia, pursued by the police, the Afghan bank robbers and the vengeful Yukio…

Russell Crowe was clearly a rising star in 1997, but of his two films of that year, L.A. Confidential was the one that made the most of his talents. Heaven’s Burning, on the other hand, is a watchable lovers-on-the-run thriller that’s a little too derivative to have a great impact. Director Craig Lahiff and scriptwriter Louis Nowra mix tones wildly, throwing together graphic violence (a torture scene is not for the faint-hearted, involving hands nailed to a table) and offbeat humourous touches (for example, a wheelchair-bound accordion player). Unfortunately, the characters are ciphers to be dealt with as the plot dictates. You sense they are derived more from other movies than from life. The worst victim of this is Kenji Isomura who cannot make sense of a character who had none in the script. On the other hand Crowe has charisma to spare, but we knew that already, and Youki Kudoh (who has since gone on to make Snow Falling on Cedars) is a good match for him, though hampered by delivering most of her lines in a heavy Japanese accent. Ray Barrett gives his usual solid performance in his few scenes as Colin’s father, and gets a speech similar in style and intent to Dennis Hopper’s in True Romance: this time, it’s about karma.

Heaven’s Burning has its moments, but doesn’t really come off. It went straight to video in the UK.

Magna Pacific’s DVD (which, unusually for this company, is region-coded: there are also US Region 1 and German Region 2 editions available) is like the film: commendable in some areas but frustratingly lacking in others. The picture itself is a case in point. Australia is a country that has been slow to take to widescreen home viewing: videos are almost always full-screen (open-matte or pan-and-scan). Local DVDs (i.e. Australian films on Australian labels) can sometimes be in widescreen, but there are still too many that are not. That said, Heaven’s Burning has an anamorphic transfer in its original ratio of 2.35:1, which is the good news. The less good news is the quality of the transfer. It shows clear signs of being taken from a cinema print. The contrast is excessive, an early scene in a Greek restaurant being particularly bad in this respect. While the print is generally free of damage, cue dots do appear at regular intervals. Several scenes where the Japanese characters speak in their own language, and one brief bit where the Afghans do likewise, feature burnt-in English subtitles, undoubtedly part of the cinema print. These are quite small and not always easy to read: the aforementioned Greek restaurant scene is, again, the worst example.

The packaging promises a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but this is incorrect. What this DVD has is instead is a 2.0 soundtrack. That’s not a ProLogic Dolby Surround track, but a discrete two-channel digital track. There are left-and-right effects but no surround, despite plenty of opportunities for it. Not having seen the film in the cinema, I can’t comment if this is faithful to the theatrical sound mix, but I doubt it is.

The extras Magna Pacific have provided are quite good, but lacking in basic material such as biographies and filmographies. Since most of the cast and crew won’t be well known to many filmgoers, this is a regrettable omission. The trailer is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 and runs 1:48. As is often the case, it contains shots which would be major spoilers if you’re aware of their context. There are interviews (all shot in full-frame video) with Crowe, Kudoh, Lahiff, and Al Clark and Helen Leake (producers, interviewed separately). These presumably come from an electronic press-kit, and are as bland as that implies.

“Script to scene” deals with two sequences. First, we see the first page of the script, followed by the opening credits of the film. The second sequence is the car chase after the bank robbery: storyboards followed by the final film. There are four deleted scenes, “Stealing the Car”, “On the Train”, “The Porch” and “The Gym”. Each has a commentary from Craig Lahiff, and “The Porch” is shown twice, first without and then with a music score. All four sequences are in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with rather rough video quality and timecodes in the bottom black bars. As with most deleted scenes, they are certainly interesting but you can see why they were cut.

The final extra is the “director’s reel”, comprising two extracts from his earlier work. Both are in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with a commentary by Lahiff. First is a scene from a short film Lahiff made at film school. It’s overly dark, very grainy and artefacted with a distinct crackle on the soundtrack. The second extract, much cleaner, is from Lahiff’s feature debut. Lahiff doesn’t give the titles of either film which, given the lack of basic biofilmographies on this DVD, is annoying. However, I can identify the feature film as Fever from 1988: you may recognise Bill Hunter in the extract.

Like the film, this DVD of Heaven’s Burning is frustratingly uneven, its commendable aspects failing to make up for more basic lacks in other departments.


Updated: Dec 17, 2001

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