Directed By: Guy Moshe
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Gackt, Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman, Kevin McKidd, Demi Moore, Emily Kaiho
Based on Transformers: Dark of the Moon‘s performance, there’s clearly a nice chunk of moviegoers who are okay with feature films that are visual spectacles and nothing more. However, not only isn’t Bunraku a Michael Bay blockbuster, but it’s highly stylized, instantly narrowing its target audience. Then again, by focusing on the fans of artistic hand-to-hand combat, Bunraku is poised to head right into more open arms. But, for the rest of us, while the visuals may be like nothing we’ve ever seen and downright incredible, it’s just not enough to make Bunraku a fulfilling watch.
Josh Hartnett is The Drifter, a man passing through town, looking to settle a score. Then there’s Yoshi (Gackt), a samurai with some business of his own, reclaiming a gold medallion. What do these two have in common? Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman). Nicola’s the most powerful man east of the Atlantic, with an army of “red suits” behind him as well as nine lethal killers.
Turns out, not only did Nicola steal Yoshi’s family’s medallion, but he’s also the man The Drifter is after. Both preferring to work alone, it takes a local bartender (Woody Harrelson) to bring the skilled fighters together and pursue their goals side-by-side. However, with the red suits and deadly assassins like Nicola’s right hand man, Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd), in the way, they’re in for an intense uphill battle.
Bunraku is an incredibly noble effort. From the puppet-driven opening credits honoring the connection between the film’s title and that of a 400-year-old Japanese theater piece, to the highly stylized set design and fight choreography, it’s quite clear that almost every element of this production was planned to the tee. The problem is the story. The general concept of two men fighting the same man for different reasons and joining forces in their effort is successful, but individual moments don’t transition well, throwing off the pace and the film’s effort to build suspense.
Bunraku repeats itself incessantly, both in terms of story and character development. While the circumstances might change, both The Drifter and Yoshi don’t really learn very much from beginning to end, save for the fact that they need to work together. As individuals, neither’s campaign is compelling enough to drive the film or make the audience as invested in the effort as they are. Perlman’s Nicola, on the other hand, is an interesting guy. While he’s the primary villain, there are moments that suggest he has some depth and even some heart. He keeps you guessing and in a film that almost plays out like a linear videogame, where the characters have to beat level one, two, three, etc. before battling the big boss man, that’s greatly appreciated.
However, ultimately, story doesn’t really matter much here, as Bunraku succeeds as a visual exhibition more than anything. Even without caring what happens to the characters, there’s something about their adventure that’s mesmerizing and that stems from writer-director Guy Moshe’s stellar attention to tone. Something like this can only succeed if Moshe goes all the way, and he does. Just like the attention paid to connect Bunraku to its source material by using those puppets maneuvered by puppeteers in black during the opening credits, every element of the set and costume design, the delivery of dialogue and the physical movement of the characters is in perfect synchronization, making this world something surprisingly tangible and a place you can immerse yourself in.
Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchía enhances this effort through artfully designed framing and camera movements. There are quite a few spectacular tracking shots through which Anchía manages to show off expansive environments without ever cutting the camera. Sometimes, this even covers multiple floors of a facility. As for the action, we get a nice variety of coverage styles. A few scenes are heavily edited, using a number of cuts to show the battles from different standpoints. While these showings are successful, one of the best fights is presented with minimal cuts, using 360-degree, circling shots. There’s also a wild combat spectacle that takes place on a trapeze and even manages to throw in a little humor.
However, as fun as Bunraku is to watch, if you’re looking for more than fight after fight, you’re out of luck because the structure of this script is particularly weak. Plot points like Hartnett’s character’s fear of heights are never fleshed out and characters like Demi Moore’s Alexandra, Nicola’s favorite lady, are entirely disposable. It’s really too bad though, because, story-wise, the pieces are there. We’ve got two compelling characters embarking on a journey in a wonderfully intriguing environment; if only the execution of the tale was as gripping as the visuals.