Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sunday Review: Bunraku (2011)

    “A cowboy in a world without guns, and a samurai with no sword…”

    Bunraku is a genre-bender that bends so far it breaks completely, shattering under the sheer weight of its influences. Director Guy Moshe has taken bits and pieces from westerns, martial arts films, Sin City, and video games to create a movie quite unlike any other. As a coherent film it is an utter failure; as an entertainment, an absolute blast of art-film sensibilities and action movie madness. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something out of left field (and don’t mind a little style over substance), its hard to see how you can go wrong with Bunraku.

    The film takes place at an undisclosed time in the far future, a world where guns have been abolished and the cities of the world are under warlord gang rule. The most powerful warlord is Nicola the Woodcutter, and with his gang of killers and thieves he rules the biggest town with an iron fist. Two strangers roll into town: the Drifter - an aimless grifter who comes looking for a piece of the action, be it in a game of cards or in challenging Nicola himself - and Yoshi, a young samurai (sans sword) carrying out his father’s dying wish of recovering a priceless medallion, which just so happens to be in the possession of Nicola. Antagonistic at first, the two realize they share a common enemy and figure the best way to beat him is to work together.

    A large part of the success of a movie like this is finding the right actors acting operating on the right wavelength, and for the most part Moshe assembles an able cast who properly channel all the beats necessary to ground his fantastic world. Playing the Drifter is Josh Hartnett, and the pretty-boy actor finally has enough years on him to pull off such a role. A classic “Man with No Name” archetype, the Drifter has all the usual hallmarks: mysterious past, quiet charm, near invincibility in the various fight scenes. Not a whole lot is required of Hartnett other than to stand around and look cool, but the actor brings enough to the role as to not completely disappear into the colorful scenery. Playing his reluctant partner is Japanese pop star Gackt, who - aside from having the most unfortunate name ever - also commits himself valiantly to the role of Yoshi. Yoshi is committed to nothing but finishing his quest, and sometimes such dark and driven roles can work the nerves. But Gackt’s performance sidesteps all that to find the basic humanity in an otherwise cartoon world.

    Playing Nikola’s lead henchman Number 2 is Kevin McKidd, who comes dangerously close to being the best thing in the movie, acting-wise. McKidd is fantastic, playing Number 2 as some sort of evil hybridization of Fred Astaire and Zatoichi. His slimy performance is a lot of fun to watch, whether he’s skewering his victims with a sword cane or getting a manicure from his lady friends. Less successful is Demi Moore as Alexandra, Nicola’s head prostitute, although that’s more a fault of the script than anything Moore does - the character just never gets all that much to do; one element too many in a movie already bursting at the seams.

    Rounding out the cast are wizened elders Woody Harrelson and Ron Perlman as the Bartender and Nicola, respectively. The Bartender acts as sort of a guide/mentor to both the Drifter and Yoshi - indeed, what we learn of his past leads us to believe he wasn’t all that different from either when he was a young man. Harrelson gets all the proper beats right for a wounded former warrior… Even if he does seem a bit uninterested in the proceedings at times. Still, Harrelson couldn’t phone it in if he tried, and his performance has a sort of endless watchability to it. Wish I could say the same for Perlman - the eternally charismatic character actor cuts a mean profile as Nicola, kind of like the bastard love-child of a Cossack and a Shaolin monk, but just does not seem engaged by the material at all. Perlman delivers all his lines like he’s on heavy sleeping medication, which is especially disappointing since we know he’s capable of better. I haven’t seen a more bored performance since John Malkovich in Jonah Hex… And that’s saying something.

    Once watching the film, you realize the real star of the whole shebang is the intricate design. Moshe creates an origami-like paper world, constantly folding in and out of itself to reveal new bits of scenery and set design (much like a children’s pop-up book) - bathing the whole film in primary reds and blues for a look not unlike Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. The many fight scenes are staged and choreographed well, although there are probably three or four more than are actually needed. Still, Moshe keeps them lively through a few clever touches - such as one single-take fight scene occurring over several levels of a building like a plat-former video game (with authentic 8-bit sound effects!), or a car chase staged like it’s a level right out of Spyhunter.

    Comic books, puppets, kung fu movies, pop-up books, video games, The Warriors, circus acrobats, Guys and Dolls, Proletariat revolutionaries: Moshe’s influences are legion. It’s too much, as the director barely fits them all into a single film - let alone a coherent one. Although fairly character-driven, the film never goes too deep and the plot remains pretty typical for a martial arts movie, as the heroes take on the bad guys in fight scene after fight scene. Which would have been okay, but the film runs over two hours, and just can’t sustain its overall lack of substance over such a length.

    Not a perfect movie by any means, but I can guarantee more adventurous audiences certainly won’t be bored with Bunraku.

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