Bunraku is the most stylized movie I’ve seen in a while.

What do you get when you cross a bunch of bizarrely placed actors, a blender-bomb mix of influence, style, and tecnique, an archetypal revenge story with bromance thrown in for kicks, and a series of inventive fights that are the best of their kind since Kill Bill?

Bunraku is what you get, apparently. And it’s not a movie that people are going to notice let alone rush out and see. That’s a shame for the kind of eclectic geek it was made by and for, for whom this type of thing is like catnip. It’s probably a wise move by everyone else because five seconds of Kevin McKidd fight-dancing with his stick and scarf will be enough to turn them off.

For what’s it worth, I fall more into the former category. That isn’t to say that Bunraku doesn’t err on the side of its own lunacy and ambition at times (the narration isn’t always great and the narrator himself is actually fairly bad). For the most part, its flaws are part and parcel with its commitment to the colorful, improbably, and kinetic world in which its story is set. That story is nothing too amazing. It’s a familar East-meets-West revenge tale in which the two main characters are actually a samurai and a cowboy. Of course, the twist is that Bunraku takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where any weapon including and beyond firearms is outlawed and martial arts melees reign supreme. So it’s a cowboy without a gun and a samurai with no sword (well, for most of the movie).

Our intrepid and mysterious heroes.

What makes this pairing even more interesting in this case is that the leads are Josh Harnett and Gakt. Yeah, you read that right.

Harnett is an actor whose star has fallen after a series of non-starters that were probably supposed to continue the success he saw in the early aughts, involved with high profile and successful projects where he could mostly coast on his good looks. He is often considered the definition of vacant, wooden actors from his generation. I’ve always kind of liked him, though, and his role in Bunraku will make you see him in a different light at the very least. With a gravelly voice, strong action chops, and some really subtle and interesting expressiveness (I usually wouldn’t notice this, but I couldn’t help but be aware of what Hartnett does and doesn’t do with his eyes and mouth during every close-up dialogue he’s in and it’s solid stuff), he embodies his nameless cowboy-themed drifter perfectly. The idea of seeing Hartnett in a kung fu movie, which this more or less is, feels a bit odd but the drifter’s fighting style is that of a brawler, one-punching dudes into oblivion (sometimes literally) and only throwing down the more choreographed moves when the situation calls for it. So all this is to say that I was pretty impressed with Harnett in this movie which is worth the price of admission in itself. But then again I just like being surprised by an actor I assume is shite. Your mileage may vary.

Gakt, being a well-known and eccentric Japanese celebrity, probably looks and seems more at home in this. I don’t know him as an actor at all so I can’t really weigh in except to say that his fish-out-of-water character fits into the framework of the film way better than I thought immediately after his introduction. He looks pretty effeminate and his accent is a bit thick, but the movie does a good job of giving him motivation, ass-kicking, and an overdeveloped sense of honor that make him likable if a bit less magnetic than Hartnett’s character.

Beyond these two is Woody Harrelson in a support role as a bartender who once tangled with Nikola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), the man that holds the obligatory lawless town in an iron grip. His backstory is an extra layer of pathos for the overarching conflict, though it doesn’t (and is not meant to) provide much more than that. While Harrelson only brings a small dose of effortless weirdness to the character (I like the guy in eccentric roles), he is the third leg of the tripod of bromance that unites the drifter and the samurai in common cause against Nikola and his flamboyant Red Suit Gang.

Bunraku is literally a form of Japanese puppet-theater which is a concept that pops up (like a pop-up book) in the film many a time.

The bromance between these three is part of what gives the movie a sense of fun. All the actors are aware of the conventions involved here and they each play their part well and with a few laughs along the way. The script is generous with its sense of fun and sheer enjoyment. ‘Come on!’ it says to us, ‘You know this is awesome!’

Particularly, the fight sequence that bonds the samurai and the drifter is excellent and a great indicator of the kind of inventive set design and articulation each of the several fights offers. And since there’s a lot of them, it’s awesome that the film keeps up that energy and inventiveness, never letting the action or visuals get stale. In one fight scene, Hartnett squares off against a capoerista on a trapeze. It’s the definition of fucking bonkers.

Like Sin City or The Spirit, Bunraku was made with artificial sets and green screen all the way through. Unlike those films and most others that have been made this way, Bunraku is a plethora of ideas all mashed together in a colorful blend that actually threatens to become distracting at times. It only works if you’re able to accept the wholly fantastical nature of the film. Nothing is meant to be taken literally or too seriously, even if the characters or conflicts are on the serious side. Rather, the film is one big pop up book that takes its cues from puppetry, video games, and comic books. That might sound like a mess but it’s this kind of balls-out commitment that makes it all work. Along with a healthy sense of self-awareness.

Bunraku is a movie that winks at the audience when it switches modes and lets one particular style rule a scene or two. The best examples are the two “video-game sequences”, one of which is a single-take multi-floor action sequence echoing Oldboy. It’s astonishingly well done and fresh though its influence is obvious. The other one is a brief car chase done up in a knowingly goofy overhead, old-school cart style. Both sequences are going back to to the roots of gaming, the NES days. This flirtation with nostalgia is all over the movie, but it manages to be interesting enough to not fall victim to the trap that can be.

A little taste of said video-game single-take action scene.

On the villain end of things, Ron Perlman gives a bit of philosophical weight to Nikola the Woodcutter, who is rarely seen until the very end. Mostly, though, Perlman is here to add his own eccentricity and please genre fans along the way. Perlman’s a guy who is having a pretty sweet last few years and is also the kind of guy it’s always an asset to have in your movie. Even when your movie is utterly awful. Bunraku is far from it, thankfully, making Perlman’s recent movie roles more good than bad (Drive and this vs. Conan the Barbarian comes to mind).

Kevin McKidd, playing Killer #2 (one of nine “Killers” who make up the Red Suit Gang’s inner circle!), is a lot more enjoyable. He threatens to steal the movie more than once, in fact. You can see how much fun he’s having which offsets the bonkers-effect his dance-fu bad guy immediately instills. As a character, Killer #2 sort of embodies this movie and if you don’t enjoy him, chances are you’re not going to enjoy much of this.

On the other hand, Demi Moore’s casting is just weird and bad. She’s not needed and another actress, a more crazy one maybe, might have done more with the role. As is, she’s barely in the movie and gives the most uninspired performance I think I’ve ever seen from her. She’s not a bad actress by any stretch but what the fuck, man? I just don’t get why she didn’t push it a bit more, if she had to be in this at all. When she ignominously (and literally) dies in a fire, she is not missed even presumably by the bartender who was once her man. Yech.

As Ron Perlman threatens to crush Demi Moore’s fleshy neck, I’m thinking YEAH DOOOO EEEET! Because what is she even doing here?!

On the whole, Bunraku is a visually arresting movie with an everything-and-two-kitchen-sinks approach. It has so many ideas, homages, and contributing influences that it probably threatens to lose itself for those viewers less versed in the legion trappings of a solid, eclectic genre mash-up. But that doesn’t even do this justice because Bunraku is a genre mash-up on psychedlic steroids. Not since the insanity of Speed Racer (which I love forever) has a movie come this close to pulling in everything about anime that makes it anime and making it work in live action.

This movie is a visionary piece, however the audience likes it. Written, directed, and probably altogether conceived by Guy Moshe, basically on his first time out, it solidifies him as a guy to watch in the future. Hopefully his next film has as much energy and ambition as this one.

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