I keep track of upcoming movies the same way a seasoned astronomer will keep track of approaching astrological events, checking up on them every now and then to see if more information has come to light and impatiently awaiting the day when they will grace us with their presence. I mention this because a good while back I remember first hearing about Bunraku, which was being called a “genre-bending martial arts western,” and this alone marked it on my lists of movies to keep an eye on, alongside other favorites like Trick ‘r Treat and The Cabin In The Woods which seem to stall forever but turn out to be well worth the wait. Bunraku doesn’t fulfill these expectations, however, it does fascinate out of sheer ambition to do so.
Though undoubtedly full of flash and innovation, Bunraku is yet another warning for why spectacle cannot replace depth in order to engage the audience. It’s positively bursting with colorful visuals, unique fight scenes, and a world which is clearly loved dearly by it’s creator, Guy Moshe, but is bogged down by weird characters, cheesy dialogue, and a meandering story which, despite what it’s lead may claim, never comes full circle.
Filmed in 2008 but delayed a theatrical release (Perhaps a blessing) due to budgetary concerns, Bunraku tells the story of two mismatched warriors, The Drifter (Josh Hartnett, who summoned more convincing emotion in his brief role in Sin City then here) a gunslinger without a gun but with a mean right punch, and a samurai without a sword, Yoshi (Gackt Camui, not remotely convincing as a skilled but temperate warrior) who arrive in a Town with no name, intending to take on Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman, whose shaggy beard is bizarrely out of place here) who owns the city and rules with a tyrants’ hand.
In many ways, Bunraku is the exact opposite of the aforementioned Sin City in everything from tone to lighting. Both have a narration which serves to enhance our understanding of the characters and the situation they find themselves in, but where Sin City’s characters narrated their own and gave us a deeper affinity for them, Bunraku’s aloof narrator is more interested in sly observations about the scenes themselves, and filled with so many interesting, yet ultimately distracting tidbits it’s like a director’s commentary that’s become too smart for it’s own good. Imagining the film without dialogue or narration is a tempting proposal, if not for the confusing motivations of it’s cast.
Take Josh Hartnet and his Lee Van Cleef-esque mustache. Even though The Drifter is cool, (He tips his hat with the sound of a revolver spinning) his motivations are shaky, and any character growth he experiences feels shallow and forced. The film’s real crime is to build such mystery around him, and then refuse to answer any of it in favor of just making him a typical badass. He also has a bad habit of expressing the majority of his emotions with small tilts of his head, which makes his relationship to Yoshi hard to buy.
If he’d been played by a more veteran actor and given more of a script, Yoshi’s motivation could have created a more complex character deserving of some real empathy, since his desire for peace is clearly at odds with the cartoonishly violent world. Gackt however cannot pull this off to save his topknot however, going from one scene to the next with a sallow expression on his face, except when he’s getting the stuffing beat out of him by The Drifter.
Woody Harrelson as “The Bartender” brings the two together to form an alliance against Nicola, but his character rarely gets to do more in scenes then watch the fights between the two and casually sip whiskey, offering advice when the situation calls for it. It’s a role that doesn’t showcase even a little of his grandiose potential, and even when he gets a good line, it just doesn’t work.
He has a hinted, if not explicit connection with the weakest link of the movie, Alexandra (Demi Moore, who I swear hasn’t had a role since her bit in the serial killer thriller Mr. Brooks) the concubine of Nicola who muses her character’s motivation out loud in her first scene and then proceeds to feed the preceding ones with looks of annoyance and sorrow.
The big man himself, Nicola, is fond of dryly delivered monologues that try to substitute for character depth, and looks like a “Psycholo” a la Battlefield Earth with the lanky locks of The Beast from Ron’s staring role in the 1987 TV series. Nicola is a bad guy all dressed up with nowhere to go, and so he mostly chews the scenery behind a giant straw hat that would have given him an aura of mystery if he had just stopped spouting his life’s story. He sounds joyless rather then tired, and rather then sympathize with him the audience just wants him to stop stewing in his castle and go out on the street if he’s so desperate to live.
The one piece of constant entertainment is, of course, the right hand man, “Killer No. 2.” (Of 10, who are all identified with rather clever paper tags that zip across the screen whenever an unseen member is announced) He’s a dandy little albino who moves like a snake and kills with bombastic flourishes that hide his blindness so well I didn’t pick up on it until Alexandra starts crunching walnuts to his pained ears. Kevin McKidd (HBO’s Rome) is clearly having fun his eye spectacles, swanky suit and fedora turning him into a new wave Alex of Clockwork Orange infamy.
Saturated in blues, purples, and reds like a neon filtered crime novel, and featuring sounds effects not heard since Adam West’s Batman, one can’t be anything but mystified by Bunraku’s highs and lows. It’s an ultra-stylized trip down a rabbit hole of the action genre, so entertained by it’s own world it forgets the viewer is watching as well. One could make the joke that it’s too 2-Dimensional and falls under it’s own structure, but the real problem is that it’s too enthusiastic in expanding its elements out into a glorious origami flower to notice it’s audience can barely keep up with their own.
Best line-“I’m a product of a fucked-up generation. I can’t even seem to find a sunset to walk off into”- The Drifter