Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movie Review: Bunraku

I'm not sure what the makers of this 2010 movie meant by titling it after the Japanese art of puppetry in which the puppeteers are always visible on the stage, dressed in all black like ninja.  Perhaps they were implying that they intended to make a movie in which you can see the people behind the camera.  If that was their intent, it's certainly true.  You can see that the people behind this film must like comic books, anime, kung fu action movies, samurai films, and highly stylized films like Sin City.

What the filmmakers clearly didn't want for this movie was a coherent story or characters that are in any way similar to real people.  Everything in Bunraku is highly stylized, just like the sets.  Most of the characters don't even have names; they have titles, such as Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd) and The Bartender (Woody Harrelson).  One of the main protagonists (Josh Hartnett) is never given a title or a name.  The other character who serves somewhat as the audience POV character does have a name, Yoshi (Japanese pop star / actor Gack't).  The decision whether to give a character a name, a title or nothing seems to be arbitrary.  

As I mentioned, the story isn't very coherent.  Yoshi and the nameless guy both seem to want something from the big bad guy, Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman), who gets both a name and a title.  Voiceover narration explains that the movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world in which guns have been outlawed, so everyone fights with swords and knives except for Yoshi and Hartnet's character, who use their fists.  This provides ample opportunity for lots of well-choregraphed fight scenes.  The movie opens with a particularly striking fight scene in which Killer #2 eliminates a whole gang of opponents with slick dance-like moves.  I must say McKidd steals every scene he's in.  Gack't isn't bad, either.

The rest of the performances, however, aren't much to brag about.  Hartnett is playing the typical mysterious stranger and doing his best grim and gritty Clint Eastwood impression, but it's not very impressive.  His only saving grace as a character is the decision to give him a paralyzing fear of heights.  Ron Perlman is mostly wasted, having to mouth a lot of pompous and meaningless dialog.  Harrelson suffers the same problem, and doesn't get much else to do until the end of the movie.  

The film also includes Demi Moore as Nicola's main squeeze, Alexandra, but her appearance provides no enjoyment at all.  Presumably the director was looking for a reason to have another big name in the cast.  Her character was also intended to give some backstory for The Bartender, but it isn't very successful.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about this movie other than the plot and dialog, though.  It looks really cool.  The stylized sets and the costumes are fun to look at.  There are lots of amusing little stylistic tricks, such as showing the English subtitles for Japanese dialog in text boxes that resemble the dialog boxes in comic books; adding video game sound effects to a car chase scene; The Bartender telling a revised version of Spider-Man's story as if it was an ancient myth; and even the narration that resembles the thought balloons you might find in a comic book.  Everything is color-coded, too, not in the sense of good guys in white and bad guys in black, but by having different scenes toned or lit in different colors.  There are also some scenes that are entirely animated, or presented in silhouette.  The few "exterior" scenes that are included are clearly shot on a soundstage using fake trees and rocks that don't even pretend to look realistic.

Only at the end of the movie does the story really gel, and the characters become more real.  I think that's the problem with this movie.  They waited too long to make me care about these people.  Despite that, I rather enjoyed Bunraku in a cheesy, too many in-jokes sort of way.  Your mileage may vary.

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