When you go to see any movie, particularly a genre picture, you are required to make a handshake deal with the film regarding the world it's trying to establish. If the picture can successfully convince you that, yes, this is a world of superheroes who are now retired, or this is a planet where no one has ever told a single lie, then you have no choice but to evaluate the movie on these terms.
So forgive “Bunraku” for testing the patience of many, as it sets up a number of logistic obstacles early on. For one, we have to believe that humanity has acted against their worst nature in the aftermath of a worldwide nuclear war and have banished all guns and firepower, lending weight to swordplay as the number one combat option once again. For another, we have to accept that the dangerous town that “Bunraku” calls its setting is almost entirely made up of folding paper mache that no one stops to notice. Finally, we have to assume that the not-particularly-imposing Josh Hartnett can become hard-boiled simply by growing a wispy mustache. It’s the hardest contrivance to buy.
Hartnett stars as a wand’rin warrior who settles in this shadowy town looking for revenge, and cradling the same dead-father backstory we’ve seen in action movies since Arnold Schwarzenegger was in diapers. After some comic book fisticuffs, the nameless drifter teams with Yoshi, a vengeful samurai, to topple the town’s nefarious crime lord. Yoshi is played by the Japanese newcomer Gackt, whose real name would fit right in with this story’s characters like Killer #2, The Bartender and The Woodcutter.
A dapper Kevin McKidd is a highlight as Killer #2, one of the nine assassins who must be defeated before the nameless hero and the wayward ronin can face the dreaded enemy, Nicola. Ron Perlman, somewhat dignified amongst the film’s cartoony effects, overcomes some dodgy wardrobe department decisions in order to chew scenery as a warlord desperately bored by the demands of the battlefield. Fending off challengers to the throne has made him bitter, and he’s forgotten the unspoken warrior’s code that everyone swears by, but no one actually talks about. “It’s not about who’s right,” he says when questioned regarding the fairness of his reign, “it’s about who’s left.”
It’s impossible to truly engage with “Bunraku” due to the film’s over-stylized look. The title refers to a style of puppetry, and the characters are nothing if not slaves to the story, themes and visual vocabulary. Mostly due to the green-screen matte work, none of the characters’ surroundings feel real, and the few sets that have been erected are purposely flimsy, both overly theatrical and dependent on shadows, but also grandly theatrical. The problem with this approach, which rehashes a number of genre clichés you’ve seen in better and worse movies (mostly the former), is that the actors never seem aware of their surroundings. Demi Moore in particular seems desperate to hit her marks instead of trying to breathe life into the thankless role of Nicola’s arm candy. And as the wisdom-spouting bartender, Woody Harrelson, who has an almost entirely different line of sight from the rest of the cast, mostly seems inebriated.
“Bunraku” consistently calls attention to its own superficiality, frequently through its dialogue. Not only is there an unnecessary narrator who sounds like a car salesman, but there’s Harrelson’s Bartender character as an exposition machine, rendering said narrator moot. Characters in “Bunraku” are dedicated to reminding audiences that they're aware they’re on a quest and fighting a clearly defined “evil.” This is a film where someone asks, "Why would he send you on a mission with so much peril lying in its path?” as if it were the most normal turn of phrase you could hear..
Pulpy to the end, “Bunraku” and its hyperreality wants to remind you of “Sin City,” but its bizarre-ness and utilization of loud chaotic colors suggests “The Spirit” instead. What pleasures arise from this film lie mostly in the extensively choreographed fight sequences, respectfully captured through clear-eyed static shots geared towards exploring the spatial dimensions between fighters. A simple thing, that, but “Bunraku” buzzes along through chaotic battle scenes and hand-to-hand fisticuffs. It’s when the action slows down that the film struggles, and it slows down a lot: this (appropriately) paper-thin movie runs at close to two hours simply because of the endlessly faux-profound chatter that replaces any sort of character development. It’s fair to come for the fighting. To stay for the empty philosophizing by characters who may as well be puppets, is asking a bit much. [C]
"Bunraku" is available on VOD starting September 1st, and will have a limited theatrical run starting September 30th.