Bunraku (2010)
By: Stuart Giesel on August 22, 2013 | Comments
Icon | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | English DTS HD MA 5.1 | 124 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Bunraku Cover Art
Director: Guy Moshe
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman, Kevin McKidd
Screenplay: Guy Moshe
Country: USA
External Links
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Bunraku wants to be the new Sin City so bad, you can almost feel Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller breathing down writer/director Guy Moshe's neck as he cobbled together tropes from not just comic book movies like Sin City and Dick Tracy, but from kung-fu, samurai, ninja, crime, musical and spaghetti western films. The result is as if the Wachowski Brothers (sorry, siblings) took a whole lot of acid and decided to merge The Matrix and Speed Racer with their favourite genre films from the 60's and 70's. It works more often than not, but the film's extreme running length and uninspired screenplay hold it back from true greatness.

It is an era where guns have (conveniently, for the sake of the film) been outlawed. Two strangers come to a city ruled by feared dictator Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) and his band of henchmen that is constructed in an extremely hierarchical fashion, led by Nicola's right-hand man, Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd). The strangers are a samurai named Yoshi (Gackt) and a man known only as The Drifter (Josh Hartnett). Both men are searching for the same thing: revenge and redemption. The other commonality they share, other than a gift for amazing martial arts skills and the ability to piss the authorities off, is their association with who essentially becomes their mentor, The Bartender (Woody Harrelson). Demi Moore shows up as Nicola's girl and doesn't have much to do, really. Oh, and to explain the film's title, Bunraku refers to a form of cut-out Japanese puppetry, which sort of explains how much depth is in this movie.

Given the choppy, throw-everything-into-the-film-to-see-what-sticks approach that Bunraku adopts, it actually works better than you might expect, and is nowhere near as headache-inducing as I had initially feared.  The production design and cinematography is highly evocative of all your favourite pop culture, be it anime, comic book, kung-fu, western - basically, it's a video game cutscene in movie form, but actually done well. The "bunraku" (cut-out) design that makes up the start credits is nicely fashioned and evocative of the style that Moshe presumably wants to deliver, and the film proper uses a beautiful Dick Tracy-inspired colour scheme. The subtitles, when they appear, are even presented in the style of a comic book; a nice touch considering the tone of the film. Sets - that is, the computer-generated sets - are artificial enough to maintain that graphic novel visual style, yet detailed enough to not invite comparisons to shitty FMV cutscenes from your favourite 90's PC games.

Visuals aside, the players acquit themselves well. Harrelson and Perlman are always watchable in anything, so no surprise here that they stand out. Hartnett is no kung-fu fighter; like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, he looks the part, and does well enough, but has obvious limitations which the film's choreography and editing tries hard to disguise. Japanese musician Gackt looks less ill-suited in his fight scenes, but comes across as uncomfortable whenever he has to deliver dialogue. Personally, I found Kevin McKidd's bad guy to be supremely annoying, like an obnoxious, twatty James Woods, so any menace he might have been trying to exude only riled me up more and more as the film went on. Demi Moore has a nothing role and she could have easily been excised from the film were it not for the apparently mandatory requirement of every film to have some form of love interest.

Other positives include a jazzy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink score by Terence Blanchard that complements Bunraku's mental state, a nice streak of humour (which unfortunately sometimes mistakes silliness for wit) and the worldbuilding is strong - it might be derivative of a dozen other films, but it at least gives an explanation as to why guns aren't used. Many modern kung-fu films fail to give plausible explanations for why guns are shed and fists are used at the earliest opportunity.

It's not all sunshine and rainbows, though. As mentioned, the material doesn't warrant such a long runtime. The fight scenes are too stylishly devised. Unlike, say, Jackie Chan, Jet Li or Donnie Yen films, Bunraku doesn't allow the fighting to take centre stage and speak for itself. They lack adrenalin because of the stylistic nature of the material - everything's so elevated and fake that it's hard to get invested in the outcome. Also, some sound effect designs are truly baffling - what's with the weird, artificial video game sounds that pop up now and then?

The script is probably Bunraku's biggest failure. Though it tries hard to establish a creative world, the story arc is predictable. Initially you think things might be a little different, but it soon follows the well-worn, bog-standard path of the hero's journey. Dialogue is frequently of the eye-rolling variety. It means to be snappy, but the Sin City tough-guy speak only sporadically works. And the narration is worse than pointless, it actually detracts from the film. You want an example? Read this in a sombre, gravelly voiceover: "play time is over kids...it's time to face the killers...time to man up". Ugh. There's not one part of the narration that actually assists us in explaining the story or the motivations of our main characters. It feels like it's been added a'la the original release of Blade Runner in case we, the dumb-arse audience, didn't quite get it. A shame Moshe didn't look to something like Goodfellas to see how a voiceover actually enhances the story.

If you don't mind a film with more style than substance, you might get carried away with Bunraku's all-or-nothing attitude. It may have bits and pieces picked out from other better films, but by cramming them into a mixer and splattering the technicolour results on the screen it has produced an entertaining and occasionally eye-popping mess.
The Disc
Say what you will about the quality of the film's script, acting, choreography and other elements, but Bunraku looks superb. Drawing on an extensive colour palette that looks like Moshe, cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia and a whole bunch of CGI wizards took ecstasy and spliced footage from Speed Racer and Kung Fu Hustle together, this high-def presentation of Bunraku is a visual treat. It might be evocative of Sin City, but it's far more diverse colour-wise and design-wise than that - a Baz Luhrmann wet dream, if you will. The colour, lighting and detail burst through on Blu-Ray, with no noticeable imperfections or annoyances. Sound is its equal, proving to be as busy and in-your-face as the visuals, with Blanchard's hyperactive score battling against a plethora of stylised kung-fu and beefy action sound effects.

The Icon Blu-Ray provided did not come with any special features.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
If I had to describe Bunraku without explaining the plot, it would go like this: The Matrix and Sin City got married and had two sons, Samurai Jack and Dick Tracy, as well as a daughter, Once Upon a Time in the West. Yojimbo and Kung Fu Hustle were the doting grandparents, and Singin' In The Rain and The Maltese Falcon the godparents who show up intermittently throughout the children's lives. If that description doesn't have you reaching for a gun to blow your brains out, chances are you'll find much to appreciate in Bunraku.
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