Named after a type of Japanese puppet theater, BUNRAKU is shot like a stage show (with definite dance and musical influences), but remains as hyperstylized as an anime. If you remember the intriguing trailer that mystified the Internet earlier this year, the finished product is pretty similar to the promise of the preview. The film feels like a Tarantino-style mashup from the mind of director Guy Moshe. Set in a dystopian future in a world seemingly made of origami and paper, BUNRAKU is equal parts western, film noir, and samurai tale with Shakespearean story influences and "West Side Story fluidity," by way of comic books and video games. (Don't worry; it's less confusing when you see it come together on screen.)
In fact, my initial trepidation of the clash of styles was soon forgotten after the first few minutes. There's genuine love of each genre (and plenty of hard work) on display in each frame. Plus, it's hard to go wrong with something of a live action cartoon full of fighting, whiskey and poker. The action isn't particularly mind-blowing, at least if you're a well-versed fan of martial arts movies, but the fight scenes are definitely unique and again highly stylized. There's a bouncy brawl that takes place on a circus trapeze net that strives for originality, as well as a video game-style fight sequence that's all done in one take and might be my favorite thing in the movie.
You gotta give it to Josh Hartnett; the man could easily have made a career off his initial "pretty boy" image with countless romantic comedies. Instead he seems to choose his roles carefully and championing interesting films like this. As the elusive Drifter, Hatnett is believably badass; quiet, calculating and knows how to throw a punch or two. The rest of the cast also seems to embrace the film's format, giving it their all even when it may be a bit silly. There's a dreadlocked Ron Perlman chewing scenery as the Russian mob boss villain, Woody Harrelson playing a similar sarcastic mentor character he did in ZOMBIELAND, and his former INDECENT PROPOSAL co-star Demi Moore as a grumpy hooker who doesn't get much to do. The biggest surprise was the newcomer (at least to me) with the awesome name, Gackt, who plays the samurai character classically and convincingly.
BUNRAKU is nice to look at and enjoyable to watch, but it's also about as deep as the papier-mâché world in which it takes place. Everything is in the name of style over substance, something I think director Moshe proudly and actively strove for, but gets a little tiresome after a while. Two hours is way too long for something like this. The novelty can carry you so far, but BUNRAKU doesn’t have a strong enough script to justify the length. Paying homage to the "man with no name" genre is fine, but aside from the visuals, Moshe doesn't bring anything new to a predictable story.
Trailers and Previews.
Extra Tidbit: The movie also gets major bonus points for being narrated by epic vocalist Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr. Bungle).