(2010)2.5Mark DemingMidway through watching Bunraku, I found myself wishing I had been at the pitch meeting where writer and director Guy Moshe convinced producers to put up the money to make the film. Just what did he do? Did he use elaborate storyboards? Did he tell the story using finger puppets or action figures? Did he leap around the room playing all the parts? Were there costumes involved? Did he make a diorama? Bunraku is a movie that's all about visual style, and narrative and character barely fit into the picture; clearly, he must have convinced someone that this movie would look pretty remarkable before the fact, because if he'd sold it strictly on the basis of the story, it's difficult to imagine anyone ponying up any serious cash for this project. You've never seen a movie that looks quite like Bunraku, but the story doesn't offer much you haven't sat through many times before.
Bunraku is set in a time and place that's partly futuristic and partly primitive. Humanity has at long last learned that it must curb its destructive impulses, and with this in mind, guns have been banned. However, this just means that criminals with the skills and the nerve to use swords, hatchets, and other sharp objects have gained power, and Nicola (Ron Perlman), nicknamed the Woodcutter for his deadly talent with an axe, is now the most-powerful man east of the Atlantic Ocean. Nicola also has a band of trained assassins, led by the stylish but brutal Killer Number Two (Kevin McKidd), to do his bidding and keep his enemies in line. Into town ride two men who have scores to settle with Nicola -- the Drifter (Josh Hartnett), a soft-spoken and nameless stranger who can outfight almost anyone, and Yoshi (Gackt), a Japanese swordsman and holy man who must put his fighting abilities to work when Nicola's men begin threatening his uncle, who runs the local sushi restaurant. Yoshi and the Drifter eventually find a common ally in the Bartender (Woody Harrelson), who doesn't much care for Nicola's tyrannical rule, and with his help they make their way through the Woodcutter's cadre of killers; meanwhile, Nicola and his men go out of their way to make things difficult, provoking Yoshi by kidnapping his niece and putting her in the boss's harem, and forcing the Bartender's former lover Alexandra (Demi Moore) into work even more demeaning than serving as Nicola's concubine.
Bunraku's opening title sequence plays out the story of human conflict in about three minutes via origami puppets, and the movie only gets more visually inventive from there. Every set is stylized, there are no authentic-looking outdoor locations, and the film looks like a crazy, explosive jumble of manga, Soviet-era design, vintage comics, and puppet animation, with the colors bold, the patterns eccentric, and the elements standing out in sharp relief. The movie looks like such a remarkable crazy quilt of themes and inspirations that you can't help but wish that writer and director Guy Moshe put half as much effort into his screenplay. Much of Bunraku is a poorly matched rehash of familiar elements from old Westerns and samurai flicks (two genres that were never thematically far apart), and even the most eccentric of the bad guys seems like he's simply channeling Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, albeit with a few odd touches of his own. Given how one-dimensional the characters are, it speaks well of Ron Perlman as Nicola and Woody Harrelson as the Bartender that they're able to flesh out their roles and give them some needed gravitas. Unfortunately, Josh Hartnett isn't so much mysterious as dishwater dull as the Drifter, and while Japanese pop star Gackt brings more urgency to his turn as Yoshi, he doesn't seem to know what to do beyond looking either angry or concerned, and he's run through his dramatic repertoire several times by the halfway mark. Since the film barely bothers to explain just why these folks are trying to kill Nicola and how most of these people are supposed to know one another, the cast may not have known what was going on any better than the audience, but since they were paid to find out, that's no excuse. There are brief moments when Bunraku recalls 2010's delirious The Warrior's Way (a cult film still waiting to find its cult), but where that film was visually creative and also had an exciting story and compelling characters, this is a pretty package that has nothing inside. Guy Moshe is clearly a talented visual stylist judging from Bunraku, but if he has any sense at all, he'll hire someone else to write his next project rather than relying on his own dubious notions about plot and character.
A ragtag band of renegades takes on a master warrior and his private army in this stylish action thriller. In the wake of a global war, guns have been outlawed but violence is still the way for many, who now do battle with knives or their fists. Nicola (Ron Perlman), nicknamed The Woodcutter, is the most feared and powerful fighter on the East Coast, and he rules his empire with the help of a handful of similarly talented lieutenants, most notably Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd). One evening, The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) ambles into a bar in Nicola's village and announces he has a score to settle with the leader, and wants to know who's willing to help kill him. The Drifter's bold request catches the ear of Yoshi (Gackt), a swordsman from Japan who was also done wrong by Nicola and wants justice. Most believe The Drifter and Yoshi have signed their own death warrants by taking on the Woodcutter and his minions, but a few are eager to help them bring down the tyrannical Nicola, including the philosophical Bartender (Woody Harrelson), Alexandra (Demi Moore), a courtesan with an unpleasant history with the tyrant, and Yoshi's uncle (Shun Sugata) and cousin (Emily Kaiho). Written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Moshe, Bunraku was an official selection at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.