Year Released: 2010
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 118 minutes
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“Bunraku” is a form of Japanese puppet theater where the puppeteers are on stage, dressed in black, manipulating large puppets to music. It’s also the name of the second full length feature from director and writer Guy Mosche. It tells a very classic story of a mysterious man coming to town in search of revenge, but ends up encountering much more. “Bunraku” is highly ambitious, a jumble of styles, and features a cast that includes Josh Hartnett, Ron Perlman, Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd, Demi Moore and Japanese rock star Gackt.
The Woodcutter (Perlman) sits in his house on the hill, the dictator of a town that has long banished guns and bullets, with his 9 Killers, specialist fighters who keep the people taxed and beat down. Along comes a Drifter with no guns (Hartnett) and a samurai with no swords (Gackt) each with their own motivations that eventually cross paths. Channelling westerns, samurai movies, Russian gangsters, stage plays, and a cadre of fighters that put the gangs in “The Warriors” to shame, “Bunraku” mashes up multiple genres. Set on stages instead of on location, you half expect a musical number to break out at any minute. Combine all that with montages done using a combination of animation and puppets, a score that varies between orchestral and video game sound effects, and dashes of comedy, Kung-Fu, and drama and you can start to imagine just how grand Mosche envisioned this film.
Kevin McKidd, playing one of the Killers, shines as a badass straight out of the “Smooth Criminal” music video, slick dance move style fighting included, and Woody Harrelson’s bartender character entertains every minute he’s on screen. While we do get an eye popping prison break scene from Hartnett’s Drifter where he beats his way through dozens of villains on multiple levels, I feel he was severely miscast. He throws himself into the role but his character falls flat and it’s tough to see him his a badass despite doing the fight scenes himself. Demi Moore’s role, as a long lost love, seems tacked on, as if they got her cast and then needed to flesh out the character at the last minute. Also, no fault of her’s, the dialogue she’s given comes off laughably bad and over dramatic. Perlman is solid, as always, but The Woodcutter is nothing out of the box for him; being a tough, yet soft spoken bad guy until provoked.
The sets would be grand, if this was a Broadway play, but due to so many camera close ups it’s easy to see flaws in them. Backgrounds have bubbles in the paint, the handmade chairs look jagged and obviously spray painted and everything else just appears cheap and I found it slightly distracting. Conversely, I was a fan of the costumes, which worked to combine multiple styles, and gave each Killer’s crew their own identity. Especially standout is one of the gangs dressed somewhere between a 1920s vaudevillian and 70s era punks. They leap around like break dancers, pummeling Gackt and Hartnett and provide yet another of the fun fight scenes. And there is where the movie excelled for me. “Bunraku’s” dramatic aspects never felt real, lingering in mediocrity and never pushing the story to where you cared about the character’s actions, but when we got back to the action, fun is to be had.
“Bunraku” is a mixture of many styles, some of which work and some that don’t. When it succeeds it’s a electrifying mixture of Western and Eastern classics, but it mostly misses, hindered by a weak script, set direction and missed opportunities. If it had only pushed itself more, given more drama, more action and more style, I think it could be an excellent movie. “Bunraku” is the perfect movie to push the limits and while it stands out from features around it, it’s lacking. I do look forward to seeing more from Mosche, as he has an original voice in movie making and that’s always something to celebrate.
Posted on September 27, 2010 in Reviews by Noah Lee
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