by A.J. Hakari
There’s always an alarmist reaction to any stylistic innovation in film. Remember when people were scared that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would put flesh-and-blood actors out of work? Or when Sky Captain spelled doom for physical sets as we knew it? I think we made it through just fine, and judging from how well Bunraku performed, we needn’t fear a samurai/western/video game/comic book hybrid craze striking cinema next. It’s a film that wants to give all these genres and mediums the Sin City treatment, compiling them all into one very visually distinct package. But although Bunraku does achieve a few moments of coolness, they aren’t worth sitting through a final product this jittery, unfocused, and ultimately uninteresting.
Okay, so in the future, blah blah, war ravages the planet, blah blah, death and destruction. Long story short, guns are banned after mankind blows most of itself to kingdom come, its survivors huddled in cities modeled after what can only be some anime version of Dick Tracy. Keeping the masses in check is Nicola (Ron Perlman), whose reign as the orneriest bastard around has gone undisputed for decades. But from the ranks of the downtrodden rise two challengers with their own reasons for gunning after him: justice-seeking warrior Yoshi (Japanese performer Gackt) and a nameless drifter (Josh Hartnett) with even more mysterious motivations. Slashing and bashing their way through Nicola’s legion of color-coordinated killers, the dudes soon realize that teaming up is the best way to take down their common and heavily-bearded foe.
Bunraku takes its name from a form of puppet-based Japanese theatre, and this flick is anything, it’s really damned theatrical. Among the tools writer/director Guy Moshe uses to spice up the story are the aforementioned marionettes, rear projection, CG animation, and, in a way, paper cut-outs. Moshe is one ambitious fella, but the amount of stuff he wants to accomplish is greater than his capacity to whip it all into a singular, disciplined shape. All of the elements Bunraku has at work can come together well, but here, the finished effects feels like a dozen different movies jostling for attention at the same time. The tone changes from camp martial arts romp to stoic swordsman drama to film noir western, with such varying degrees of seriousness and silliness along the way that you stop caring about what’s taking place fairly early on.
That’s not to say Bunraku is a total slouch, as the visuals do work in its favor quite a bit. I liked the variety of simple, in-camera effects used to put characters speaking to each other from miles apart in the same room together, and the fight sequences were mostly solid (I especially dug Hartnett’s single-take takedown of an entire police station). But even with a story as basic as “kill the big mean bad guy,” Bunraku‘s colliding dispositions make it too complicated to get into. Yoshi and the drifter’s quest to bring down Nicola has no weight, Mike Patton’s intrusive narration detracts from the atmosphere of badassery rather than evoke it, and a completely useless subplot with Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore as former lovers receives equally anticlimactic closure.
A very flawed but stylish sore thumb sticking out amidst an increasingly homogenized action movie market, Bunraku has “cult favorite” written all over it. Just give the DVD some time to catch on, and in ten years, I’m sure you’ll have Josh Hartnett cosplayers crawling all over the place. But I’ll leave the heralding to someone else, because for all the things Bunraku tries to pull off, being a nice try is what it succeeds best at.