Ambitious fantasy martial arts film from writer-director Guy Moshe attempts to meld martial arts, samurai and Wild West genre conventions in a stylized comic book world of post-apocalyptic gang warfare and bitter vendettas. With its German impressionist-like sets, gaudy lighting and CGI-enhanced comic book treatment, the film succeeds in creating a unique and stimulating visual style reminiscent of DICK TRACY and SAMURAI JACK. Ample fighting action choreographed by Larnell Stovall (UNDISPUTED III: REDEMPTION) has the basic look and feel of fights in Prachya Pinkaew’s CHOCOLATE, but suffers from too much chaotic editing and camera work and too little quality screen fighting on the part of the actors and stunt crew. Despite a high-profile cast of talents including Josh Hartnett, Japanese pop icon Gackt, Demi Moore, Ron Perlman, and Woody Harrelson, the bulk of BUNRAKU is a dull mess of genre clichés and one-dimensional characters spouting forgettable dialogue while fumbling through a sloppy, tediously paced plot.
Narration hints that sometime in the future the world is ravaged by war to such an extent that the survivors are able to successfully do away with all ballistic weapons. It’s an attempt to control humanity’s thirst for violence and destruction but as the film repeatedly suggests, fighting never ends. People have returned to using swords and fists to wage war on one another. In one particular town a gang led by Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) is running the territory despite constant challenges from rival gangs. These pre-arranged challenges take place in the town square at midnight. Nicola’s right-hand man, Killer 2 (Kevin McKidd), leads the gang in these skirmishes.
Enter The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt), two fighters each looking to take down Nicola and Killer 2. It isn’t made clear until the end of the film but The Drifter is out to avenge the death of his father while Yoshi wants to reclaim a stolen necklace. After his uncle is killed by Killer 2, Yoshi also seeks revenge.
Woody Harrelson portrays The Bartender, an odd character we gradually learn once fought Nicola and lost. Though his life was sparred he’s now partially crippled and opts to aid the other two heroes in their efforts by driving them around and providing contacts.
In a throwaway role that anyone could have played Demi Moore is Alexandra, a woman Nicola stole from The Bartender and essentially made his unwilling concubine.
Initially, The Drifter and Yoshi see each other as rivals and even engage in a fight. After settling their differences they team up to bring down Nicola. The Drifter plans to get to Nicola through a weekly poker game the gang leader regularly attends. This leads to a challenge in the town square that ends with the two heroes outnumbered and on the run.
The Bartender brings the two heroes to The General, an old coot with information on how to sneak up to Nicola’s headquarters. The Bartender also convinces them to bring along an army of 100 proletariat soldiers, made up of small business owners and workers trained in martial arts and tired of being oppressed by gang lords like Nicola. This leads to the storming of Nicola’s mountain headquarters and the final battle.
Martial arts films rarely have great plots and this one could be forgiven if not for the lousy pacing and general lack of clarity or purpose. There are too many insubstantial talkie bits and too little understanding of what’s happening and why. The film also takes itself too seriously by trying to appear hip and trendy while actually being very hollow, much like the worst action movie of all time, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER. This is the quickest way to torpedo an action movie that could otherwise squeak by as B-grade fodder for “bad movie” enthusiasts.
Fighting action is plentiful by Hollywood standards with Hartnett, Gackt and their stunt doubles frequently in the thick of it. The only actor that stands out though is Kevin McKidd as Killer 2. What he lacks in skill or physicality, he makes up for with panache and style. He makes for a credible comic book fighting villain akin to a Batman character like The Riddler. Perlman is a fine genre actor but looks terrible in this film as the lead villain. He’s dressed like an extra from some B-grade Viking movie, looks paunchy and performs almost no action.
Larnell Stovall is a talented up-and-coming fight coordinator who got his first real chance to impress genre fans by working on Isacc Florentine’s UNDISPUTED 3: REDEMPTION with leading martial arts stars Scott Adkins and Marko Zaror. That film showed what Stovall is capable of with talented cast and crew who understand fight work. BUNRAKU shows what Stovall can do without the same talent, which isn’t much without a lot of tight framing and editing to mask the lack of skill. The best fighters in the film have the least screen time. The best are two black fighters who perform some very quick capoeira and kickboxing moves that would have fit a quality Van Damme or Panna Rittikrai flick perfectly.
Like much of the film, the action is a hodgepodge where it feels more like experimenting or throwing random styles at the wall to see what sticks. Aforementioned capoeira and kickboxing is accompanied by bits of kendo, Aikido, boxing, acrobatics, “B-boy fu,” and generic screen fighting. In this way, it’s a bit like some of Prachya Pinkaew’s films where Tony Jaa took on a lot of fighters with different styles. But the staging here is subpar with much of the styles appearing at random and with little or no build up or explanation.
BUNRAKU has some interesting elements in it, mostly found in the art direction. I applaud Guy Moshe for attempting to do something artful and different with a martial arts film. Yet the effort is squandered by a lack of clear purpose and understanding of fight work and genre film in general. All the elements of a great comic book-style action film are present but they’re not used effectively and the end result is a film that falls far short of its lofty ambitions. Due to dull pacing that makes the film feel longer than it is and sloppy presentation of mediocre screening fighting, I cannot recommend BUNRAKU to action fans who favor substance over style.
BUNRAKU is available rom Arc Entertainment on VOD September 1, 2011 and on DVD November 1, 2011.
Bunraku • Gackt • Larnell Stovall