DIRECTED BY: Guy Moshe
PLOT: Set in a post-apocalyptic future that outlaws guns but promotes copious amounts of sword-heavy battles, Bunraku follows two mysterious lone strangers—a card-playing cowboy (Hartnett) and a pacifistic Japanese warrior (Gackt)—as they strive to take down the all-powerful crime lord (Perlman) who controls the city.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The visuals are stunning and innovative and the effects are wildly impressive, but the cookie-cutter sci-fi/western tale and clumsy script hold it back from approaching true Weirdness.
COMMENTS: Introduced by a gorgeous animated sequence involving puppetry (which is also the only time the film’s title comes into play), Bunraku takes place in a type of future many films have already established. There was a world-wide nuclear war, everything was destroyed, and human beings build the world back up to create a lawless, decrepit landscape where everyone fights all the time. The all-knowing, presumably winking narrator is upfront about what type of story this is, making cracks about the type of mysterious loners always found in places like these. This self-awareness pervades the script and certainly makes the film more digestible.
The set-up and story don’t make a lot of sense, with bouts of under- and over-exposition that either confuse or bore. Hartnett’s Drifter is stiff and stern, with no emotion and no reason for the audience to care about him. Gackt’s Yoshi is likable enough (and magnetically androgynous), but like Drifter he’s so enigmatic there’s barely any character left for the actor to embody. They’re one-dimensional archetypes to the fullest extent of the word, but Moshe seems fully aware of this. Woody Harrelson brings some levity and charisma to The Bartender, a friendly but heartbroken working man who doesn’t take sides but finds himself pulled into Drifter and Yoshi’s war against Nicola (Perlman), the vicious and world-weary “Woodcutter.” Demi Moore is extremely out of place as the crime lord’s resentful woman, but her role is small enough.
Luckily there is plenty to distract from the weak characterization! Bunraku is chock-full of fascinating visuals and downright exciting fight scenes. The lighting is over-saturated and the locations are highly stylized, with cut-paper backgrounds and a few Caligari-esque sets. A sizable chunk of the running time is devoted to intense action sequences, with an inexhaustible amount of literal Redshirts ready to be killed by our heroes (led by Kevin McKidd as Killer #2, easily the weirdest character in the film) in elaborate group scenes. There are fistfights, swordfights, polefights, circusfights, axefights, and one cool car chase. The effects are excellent, transitioning from comic-book style animation to CG enhancements to miniatures with a believable flow.
For all its thrilling action and memorable visuals, Bunraku suffers from an overcomplicated yet under-explained plot and an inexcusably long running time. It could easily have lost 30 minutes and become tighter, better paced, and more enjoyable. The writing is hit and miss, with some really sly moments that show Moshe’s self-awareness and sense of fun, and others that are over-serious and dull. Aside from its looks, the film doesn’t do anything different but it doesn’t mean to, so it’s forgivable. It’s just a fantastical, stupid romp with the colors of a 1950’s musical and the stylized gore of a Frank Miller comic. What’s not appealing about that?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Extremely cool-looking in the manner of ‘Sin City,’ but clumsily staged, slackly acted and mind-numbingly dull, Israeli director Guy Moshe’s English-language fantasy is set in a future when guns, and apparently coherent conversations, have been outlawed.”–Lou Lumenick, New York Post (contemporaneous)