Review: Bunraku (18) / Directed by: Guy Moshe / Written by: Boaz Davidson, Guy Moshe/ Starring: Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson
Poor Josh Hartnett, now that Hollywood has stopped shoving him down our throats as ‘The Next Big Thing’ it seems that most of his work is consigned to a bottom shelf. After the fascinating failure of I Come with the Rain a few months back now an equally flawed and somewhat less fascinating film debuts on DVD despite featuring the presence of Ron Perlman, Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. Bunraku is best described as a cross between Equilibrium, Sin City and West Side Story as directed by Michel Gondry but even that doesn't do this glorious mess justice. Bunraku has the strangest tone in a fantasy action film since Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element.
Through a simply animated prologue narrated by Faith No More singer Mike Patton, we learn that the world eventually got tired of gun violence and the endless death and decided to ban all guns. We then enter this strange new world in a small town somewhere in the east which is ruled over by disillusioned and tired gangster Nicola the woodcutter (Ron Perlman) and his band of nine killers lead by the lethal assassin Number Two (Kevin McKidd). Into this world walks a drifter and card player (Josh Hartnett) who is just as lethal with his fists as he is with a deck of cards. At the same time Yoshi (played by Japanese superstar Gackt) decides to come to town to visit his uncle whose restaurant happens to be Nicola’s favourite and to whom his uncle owes protection money. Both of these strangers run afoul of Nicola’s men and end up kicking some henchmen arse with their fists and swords which displeases Number Two and Nicola no end. A bartender who is fond of philosophy and pop up storybooks (Woody Harrelson) teams these two up with a view to ending Nicola’s reign of evil. The two of them are reluctant at first but Nicola and his men keep raising the stakes, either through rigged card games or through attacks on Yoshi’s uncle. These two men decide to lead an attack on Nicola with a small resistance of townspeople that have had enough.
I’m sure there was an intention here to evoke Frank Miller by way of Busby Berkeley but sadly Bunraku doesn’t quite work. What should be its strength end up being its weakness. The design of the piece is nowhere near convincing enough, imagine the standard of sets used on BBC’s The Mighty Boosh used in a film as an artistic decision and you may get an idea of the problems. Nothing in terms of set design or the surroundings feels real in Bunraku, not one shot is actually outside and quite often the fake backgrounds are laughable instead of quirky. The film seems to be set in a far east that has been massively influenced by American style from the 1930’s if you can imagine such a thing. A few scenes shot outside on actual locations would have gone a long way and given the film a bit of grit which is sorely needed. The tone and pacing are also all over the place. Bunraku moves slowly and not because it would take time to tell this story (which is pretty standard) but because instead of propelling the story forward characters will instead spout cod philosophical nonsense about the plight of the warrior and revenge being pointless. Not only do the characters speak this way but Mike Patton’s admittedly cool narration goes off on one every fifteen minutes as well. The trouble with philosophy in dialogue is its all very clever but unless you are a characters in The Matrix and use it as a means to describing a complex plot whilst moving forward then it doesn’t work.
The characters are also pretty poorly sketched though they may all be philosophy students and being pretentious just isn’t enough. We only get to know the reasons for Josh Hartnett’s characters vendetta against Nicola in the last five minutes and all the character development he gets is a little tic where he slides his hand across the brim of his hat. Demi Moore also pops up as a prostitute whom Nicola is desperately in love with. There are hints of a back story to this character as there is with Woody Harrelson’s bartender but it is never developed into anything satisfying. There is a moment where there is a quick look between Harrelson and Moore during an action sequence but that’s about it and it’s quite possible the two of them were just remembering when they were in Indecent Proposal together. The person who comes across the best in all this is previously unheard of (in the west anyway) superstar Gackt. His character gets all the best scenes and the best plot arc and the film could have just focussed on him and felt less bloated for it.
Where this film scores is with the fight/dance sequences, yes dance sequences. They never go full blown into dance numbers but right from the first scene where Kevin McKidd takes out most of a rival gang after doing a virtual tap routine its clear that director Guy Moshe is a big musical nut. The characters move in strange ways prior to striking with a sword or axe and it’s as if they are getting ready to pirouette across the stage, sorry I mean set. Nowhere is this more obvious than a scene where Josh Hartnett is surrounded in towns square by about twenty people. He is attacked by them one by one but in the background the ones standing by are moving around to music that you cannot hear, it’s like a scene from Cats. The fighting is well choreographed; particularly impressive is a scene where Hartnett viewed sideways walks through a prison beating up policemen. The camera seemingly never cuts away even when Hartnett goes down flights of stairs and it makes a pleasing video game like noise when he exits stage right. Also pretty unique is the decision to subtitle Gackt and families dialogue by using comic book style boxes, it works really well and adds to the feeling that Bunraku is a comic book come to life.
Bunraku is a failure but it’s at least an interesting one. I can guarantee you have never seen anything quite like it. I would rather see a noble failure than just a failure and for this reason I would advise you to watch it at least once. Some people are going to flat out hate this film but you can’t fault Guy Moshe for attempting something different and on his first big directorial job too.
'Bunraku' is out now on DVD/Blu-ray