UK Release date: 10th October 2011
Director: Guy Moshe
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson Ron Perlman, Mike Patton
Running time: 118 mins
Genre: Martial arts/Western/Action
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Remember when you were at school, no matter how clued up you thought you were, there was always a group of kids that little bit cooler than you. Most of us, let’s be honest here, were probably clueless when it came to being ‘in fashion’, and we always looked up to that gang of kids that ruled the common room, talked to girls, and had a social life that didn’t involve fat little plumbers and spiky blue hedgehogs. If Sin City and Kill Bill are the cool kids in the classroom, that would surely make Bunraku you and I. With a colour scheme that makes Gok Wan’s wardrobe look positively dull, Guy Moshe’s samurai-western-videogame-film noir aims for Sin City cool, but comes across like Cool World’s baby brother let loose with a pack of crayons.
In a world without guns, a mysterious drifter (Josh Hartnett) arrives in a strange town terrorised by the ruthless Woodcutter (Ron Perlman on cruise control) and his army of thugs, headed by the vicious Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd in mildly annoying mode). The drifter is forced to trust a young samurai (Japanese superstar Gackt) looking to restore his family's honour, and the local bartender (Woody Harrelson phoning it in from the hotel bar) with his own secret score to settle, as they team up to destroy the Woodcutter's corrupt regime. Using cutting-edge visuals that give you a good idea of what the inside of Roger Rabbit’s head looks like, and breathtaking fight choreography you’ve seen a thousand times before, Bunraku, also starring Demi Moore (didn’t even pick up the phone), is an original take on the action and martial arts genre. Unless of course you’ve seen Sin City and Kill Bill, then I guess it’s a film that resembles Sin City and Kill Bill but achieves none of their icy cool.
For those of you who don’t know (I had to look it up), Bunraku is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, which goes someway to explaining the overall look of the film. Blending comic book styling with samurai/western themes, Guy Moshe has created a world that succeeds in throwing you an inebriated welcome party. If there’s one thing he deserves credit for, it’s that from a visual perspective at least, Bunraku does make your eyes go pop. There’s so much invention in every frame, a Looney Tunes world that often resembles the contents of a Smarties tube. In fact, those of a cynical nature might suggest that the creative cartoon visuals are merely a smokescreen to distract from the listless direction. Not me of course, I would never be so bold. Besides, it’s fairly obvious that they’re also there to distract from the quality of acting.
Woody Harrelson plays a character called The Bartender (do you see what they did there?), the kind of role he can play in his sleep, and sometimes you’ll wonder if that’s just what he’s doing. As for Josh Hartnett, well, I’ve heard of character actors taking their jobs to extremes, but playing the part of The Drifter in the style of a Japanese theatre puppet is a little too much. Hartnett seems woefully miscast here, delivering his lines with as much cool as Jason Biggs wearing a pair of parachute pants and sporting a bandana - whilst breakdancing and drinking a can of Pepsi Twist - in a thong. Ron Perlman makes for an imposing presence, but with this and Season of the Witch under his belt, you get the impression that he’s waiting for the Sons of Anarchy to ride back into town. Demi Moore doesn’t have a lot to do, which is probably a good thing, but fans of Indecent Proposal will be overjoyed to see Woody and Demi back together again. Though I doubt very much that fans of romantic drama starring Robert Redford will be tuning in for this stale cartoon beat’ em up.
The Asian cast members are more enticing, but their delivery of the English dialogue can be a little wayward at times, much better are the scenes in which subtitles flash up like cartoon picture captions. Gackt (Moon Child) is mostly asked to play it cool, and he certainly does a better job than Josh Hartnett, I couldn’t tell if he was playing it straight or taking the piss. One thing’s for sure; his comedy moustache suggested the latter. Shun Sugata (Ichi the Killer) makes the most of his limited screen time but Emily Kaiho struggles with both the English dialogue and true conviction. Thankfully, this being a martial arts movie and all, they do look more comfortable when it comes to action choreography, and Bunraku delivers some spectacular action sequences along the way.
With distracting visuals, tight action choreography and a familiar blend of western/samurai mythology, Bunraku entertains on the most primitive of levels. The screenplay, performances and mishmash plotting take the edge off a fun night in, as does the generous running time, which tries too hard to please too many people. Guy Moshe should be applauded for creating a visually stunning landscape, but he glosses over the features that make a great movie shine – and the less said about the comedy sound effects the better.