The word “bunraku” refers to form of Japanese puppet theater where the puppeteers, usually dressed in black, are visible on stage. “Bunraku” the film combines elements of classic samurai and cowboy films and sets it in a gunless future that feels more like an alternate past.
The aesthetic feels both unique and familiar. While it is not unlike “Sin City,” “Streets of Fire,” or even “Dick Tracy,” the film’s overall style mixes in elements of paper mache, cardboard cutouts, comic books, communist propaganda posters, and puppet shows into a plot that feels like Walter Hill‘s wet dream.
The city is ruled by Nicola (Ron Perlman), also known as “The Woodcutter” and “Killer 1.” Other crime bosses may challenge him, but it always ends with his victory, thanks in part to his army of assassins, who he ranks. Nicola keeps his face a secret while his right-hand man, Killer 2 (Kevin McKidd), handles overseeing the day to day operations.
It is in this climate that two mysterious strangers enter the scene. The first is known simply as The Drifter (Josh Hartnett), a cowboy with no past and lightning-fast reflexes. The second is Yoshi (Japanese pop sensation Gackt Camui), a samurai type who has returned from Japan. Unbeknownst to them, they are both looking for Nicola, and they meet first as rivals, but soon become allies.
Helping both is the Bartender (Woody Harrelson), who provides pearls of wisdom and the occasional ride in a getaway car. He lost his will to fight a long time ago, but he sees something in the young men that spurs him to action. Also in the mix is Nicola’s woman, a prostitute named Alexandra (Demi Moore). Nicola wants Alexandra to bear him a child, but she kind of despises him and may be plotting against him.
Even though they are purposefully archetypal, the characters are all brought to life through endearing performances.
Both Yoshi and the Drifter are almost comically great fighters, and have a habit of taking out a room full of men with little effort. The fights in general in “Bunraku” are all great, staged and edited so you can see the actors actually performing the fights. Its much closer to classic Jackie Chan films than the fast cuts and handheld cameras of the “Bourne” trilogy.
The fight choreography in general is also outstanding, and the mix of different forms of martial arts and hand-to-hand combat is refreshing. Some of it is a bit dance-like, with Killer 2′s style being closest to Grace Kelly with a sword.
The technical side of “Bunraku” is almost universally strong. There are some stunning sequences and the overall art direction works well. Unfortunately, the tone of the film feels like its all over the place. Also, the narration, while occasionally humorous, tends to take away more than it adds. Its one of those things where you start to feel manipulated as an audience member.
The movie fully embraces the marionette concept, in fact, there’s even transitional scenes where we literally see our protagonists portrayed as having strings attached to them. Thinking of the narrator as the puppeteer, whose guiding hand and voice is there on the stage, the overall style starts to make more sense and goes from being an inventive misfire to a bit of a brilliant achievement. It certainly shows there is in fact a clarity of vision from writer/director Guy Moshe that is commendable.
Overall, “Bunraku” delivers on its promise, with an artful, thrilling, funny, and unique melding of classic action films. Its the type of film that demands and rewards repeat viewing.
Hopefully mainstream audiences will embrace it, but I don’t have high hopes that people will appreciate its weirdness to make it a hit. If its not a hit though, the line for its cult following starts right here.