How does a martial arts extravaganza starring Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, and Woody Harrelson end up on home video with less fanfare than Michelle Duggar announcing she’s getting ready to pop out her 39th reality TV star? Bunraku made waves at Fantastic Fest last year for its mix of Asian-influenced cinematography and action, American actors and completely balls-out storytelling. It’s now available for rental at your local video store and, though the movie’s charms wear out considerably fast, this is still a rather unique gem that’s completely worth your time.
Bunraku is a form of Japanese theater, featuring puppets, and director Guy Moshe infuses his movie with this visual style. Sets are fancifully theatrical, with a lot of the sets looking like higher-end cardboard cutouts. Characters wear fanciful clothing in bright primary colors, the better to stand out against the movie’s intentionally theater-looking backgrounds.
Or he could just be a pimp.
Bunraku’s tale occurs in the aftermath of a global war, resulting in the outlawing of all firearms and things that go boom. Luckily, human beings have been kicking the ever-loving fecal stuff out of each other for thousands of years without all of that namby-pamby gun crap. Cue outrageous martial arts sequences… well, as outrageous as you can get when your movie stars Josh Hartnett rather than Jet Li. Still, editing and camera tricks more than make up for the cast’s general lack of actual martial arts prowess.
Hartnett plays Drifter, and, yes, this is the kind of movie where characters are named according to their function in the story, giving Bunraku an almost Sergio Leone feel to the inevitable conflict between the various Men-With-No-Names. Drifter wants to kill Nicola The Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), who appears to have won the character naming lottery with both an actual name and a function. To ponder the reason behind their animosity is to completely miss the point of this sort of movie. Drifter and Woodcutter must fight until one of them lies dead because their destiny requires them to.
Personally, I’d settle for giving him a haircut.
Along for the ride is multi-talented Japanese singer-songwriter-actor-voice-actor-author Gackt who plays Yoshi, a swordsman also seeking revenge against the ever-popular Woodcutter. The movie also throws in Woody Harrelson’s Bartender. Bartender serves as the movie’s source of knowledge, advice and general how-to, and Harrelson gives the role his best Wise Sage swagger. Demi Moore, still looking smoking hot and not a day over 35, shows up as Woodcutter’s captive lover and Kevin McKidd, of Dog Soldiers fame, rounds out the cast as the villain’s second in command, appropriately named Killer #2.
Bunraku follows the general plot direction of most revenge-driven flicks. To put it in video game terms, Drifter needs to overcome ever-increasing waves of bad guys, not to mention defeat a few mini bosses, before finally passing through the end-boss doors to confront Woodcutter. Bunraku is a movie that lives or dies based on its visuals, not its storytelling, which is as old as the art of making movies itself.
Overall, Bunraku is a splendid movie to gaze at and drink in. It’s saturated with bright, vibrant colors and although there’s a certain disconnect between the actors and the cartoon-looking backgrounds, the end result is endlessly fun to watch, even if the sets end up looking like those of a high school production of Kill Bill.
Little Timmy’s school play was going fine until Josh Hartnett started knocking kids out.
Ultimately, Bunraku is a spectacular experiment in tone, style and costuming that ends up being worthwhile viewing. Come for the unique tone or the constant fights, either way you will be entertained. Whether or not you revisit the movie at a later occasion is entirely up in the air. It’s not an instant classic, but director Guy Moshe certainly takes a big step into a larger arena with this movie. I’ll be first in line for his next opus.
Your faithful reviewer,
Just TheMatt. It’s my name and my function. God said “Let There Be Reviews!” And TheMatt was. And it was good. Then God completely forgot about his creation and left it to bake in the oven overnight. Which explains the not entirely unappealing insanity and general lack of logical thought processes. Or any higher thought processes at all. BUNRAKU!
Yell! Rating (x/5 Skulls):
30 September 2011 (USA)
Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Ron Perlman, Kevin McKidd, Gackt, Jordi Mollà, Emily Kaiho, and Woody Harrelson