PLOT: In a world where firearms have been outlawed, and hand-to-hand combat and swordplay have made a comeback, two drifters; a cowboy (Josh Hartnett), and a sword-less samurai (Gackt) wander into a town ruled by warlord Nicola (Ron Perlman) and his chief henchman Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd). Both have a score to settle, and are aided by a bartender (Woody Harrelson) with ties to Nicola's lover (Demi Moore).
REVIEW: Remember the name Guy Moshe, as I have a feeling we're going to be hearing a lot from him once people get a load of BUNRAKU. The press notes for this film compare it to 300, and SIN CITY, but don't worry, BUNRAKU is not the second coming of THE SPIRIT, which was another film that was sold in that way. BUNRAKU is very much graphic novel come to life, but the style could not be more different than those films.
Rather than comics, BUNRAKU takes inspiration of the Japanese art that this film is named after, which is a form of Japanese puppet theatre, done with paper (pop up books owe more than a little to to it). Visually this film is a feast, and it's worth noting that BUNRAKU is actually produced by production designer Alex McDowell, who also designed FIGHT CLUB, FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, and WATCHMEN. The look he gives this film is extraordinary. Eschewing the dark sensibilities of 300 & SIN CITY, BUNRAKU is bathed in colour, with lots of reds, blues and purples.
Really, it's the look of the film that's the star, and the most boldly original thing about it. The storyline is pretty standard, with this owing more than a little to A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (which in turn owed more than a little to YOJIMBO). It's also very reminiscent of an old seventies western called RED SUN, which teamed a cowboy played by Charles Bronson, and a Samurai played by Toshiro Mifune. It also has a bit of STREETS OF FIRE mixed in, with the future-retro look of the film probably being inspired by that underrated Walter Hill flick.
However, while the story is not particularly original, it's still a lot of fun, and an excuse to stage lots of large scale action set pieces. Truth be told, the first hour of the film is kind of draggy, with a little too much time spent setting up the world including the various gangs and not enough being devoted to action. Luckily, this is corrected in the second hour, which is wall to wall carnage.
All of the fights are heavily stylized, hand to hand, or sword-fights, with surprisingly little wire-work. The fight sequences are actually shot like musical numbers, with Terrence Blanchard's great Jazz score complementing the action beat-by-beat. There's one particularly great scene where Hartnett infiltrates a police station and fights his way from the top floor down in a single unbroken tracking shot. While it's highly reminiscent of OLD BOY, it's still very cool.
As for star Josh Hartnett, I've always had mixed feelings about him, but this is the best thing he's done probably since the little-seen MOZART & THE WHALE. He's probably trying to channel Clint Eastwood/ Charles Bronson , and while he doesn't have their stature, he fits the neo-noir/ spaghetti western setting well.
Equally important is Japanese Pop Idol Gackt, who plays the second lead, a virtuous samurai on a quest of self- fulfilment. He actually gets the best fight scene, where he goes Mano-a-Mano with Kevin McKidd's bad ass (and Fred Astaire-like) Killer No. 2. The rest of the cast is also quite good, with Woody Harrelson getting another strong role as the bartender sidekick to our two heroes, although I wish more had been done regarding his relationship with villain Ron Perlman's kept woman played by Demi Moore (who's still a babe).
As for Perlman, his role as the warlord Nicola is not too far removed from his role on SONS OF ANARCHY, and the role of an ageing bad ass fits him like a glove.
But, like I stated earlier, the real star of BUNRAKU is the look, and in that regard, BUNRAKU is fantastic. Otherwise, it's still a fun action flick (although the constant, knowing narration needs to be cut back a bit), bu it's the visuals that truly distinguishes it. Overall, a real genre find for the TIFF Midnight Madness Program, and one you can expect to hear a lot more about in the next few months.