In a world full of so-so action films and derivate blockbuster clones, Bunraku burns bright. Blessed with superb visuals, and set in an origami universe, this samurai-western is an action fan’s dream. But it’s more than that: it’s an heroic bloodshed movie seen through the prism of Sin City’s comic book noir and Tim Burton’s darkling sense of humour. A cracking cast – headed by Josh Hartnett and featuring kinetic Japanese star Gackt along with Ron Perlman and Woody Harrelson – raises this indie upstart into the major league.
A drifter (Hartnett) and a lone samurai, Yoshi (Gackt), converge on a town ruled by The Woodcutter (a grizzled Ron Perlman looking for all the world like Gandalf’s evil twin). This cowboy without a gun, this samurai without a sword have their own reasons for tracking down the city’s overlord. But getting past The Woodcutter’s force of assassins led by Killer No. 2 (Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd) is a job for more than one man. Aided by an enigmatic Bartender (Harrelson), Yoshi and the Drifter pit their wits and their fists against a dangerous nemesis.
Funny and fast-paced and with exhilarating action choreography, Bunraku pulls off a remarkable coup: it’s actually very believable. You’re drawn in by the pop-up landscapes, lulled by the lyrical language and hooked by the chemistry between Harrelson, Hartnett and Gackt. Since The Bourne Identity, action films have been bedevilled by shaky camera work which cheats the audience and messes with the visuals. In Bunraku, director Guy Moshe has gone back to basics, trusting to the physicality of his leads and blending their movement to the changing landscapes they inhabit. You can actually see what’s going on. And it’s worth seeing.
Hartnett bookended Sin City as a mysterious killer. In Bunraku he carries off a more pivotal role with a full-blooded swagger and with a drawling delivery, like Eastwood’s Man with No Name pitching up in a film noir. Or more appropriately, Alain Delon’s Le Samourai coolly stepping into a colourful parallel universe. Given a smart ‘tache, presumably to hide his youthful looks, Hartnett invests the Drifter with a three dimensional quality, suited to the unfolding nature of the environment. With fast hands that fell villains before they know they’ve been hit, Hartnett enjoys being more than a cardboard cut-out. Delivering lines or uppercuts, his performance is on-the-note funny, not camp, bruising not boring. You can sense what lies beneath.
And Hartnett certainly wins his spurs in a full-on fight with Japanese superstar Gackt, himself a martial artist skilled in taekwondo. Back home, Gackt is huge. In his first western movie he positively fizzes with potential. Credit to Guy Moshe for giving him the go-ahead and for fleshing out his role beyond that of ‘Asian sidekick’. Bunraku is more than an indie Green Hornet where Jay Chou fights but doesn’t do much else. Here, Yoshi’s character is every bit as developed as The Drifter’s. Fight fans will be exhilarated by Gackt’s physical skills. Impressive too is his dedication to mastering the language – a crystal clear delivery invested with the nuances of the character.
It’s this kind of depth that makes Bunraku so enjoyable. And the film’s pedigree speaks for itself. Immersive design supremo Alex McDowell (Minority Report, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) was co-producer and Bunraku’s certainly an immersive experience. Not fully CGI’d like Sin City or 300, it’s shot on sound stages and then blended with the unfolding CGI landscapes. An evidently limited budget sometimes shows but the kaleidoscopic vision and rat-a-tat rhythm take it beyond B-movie territory.
And the action – from bar-room brawls to car chases, from multi-opponent face-offs to Game of Death roof-to-floor raids – is unusually varied. Martial arts, fisticuffs, swordplay, it’s all there. And so inventively shot and interspersed with humour, it doesn’t get wearisome. It’s not an Ong Bak martial arts bruiser nor an excuse for gratuitous slapdowns. The action’s combined with character throughout. ‘Life’s not all about fighting’, says Harrelson’s Bartender. ‘Come on,’chides The Drifter, ‘you know that ain’t true’. He’s got a glint in his eye – and so has Moshe’s film.
Bunraku itself, a centuries old style of Japanese puppet theatre, hardly figures, except as a motif suggesting each character is manipulated by forces beyond themselves. Clues to the film’s tone and visual style are there from the start. The title sequence, devised by Brazilian animator Guilherme Marcondes, engagingly establishes the backstory of mankind’s self-destruction and the subsequent outlawing of all firearms. But, as the voiceover intones, man can’t change himself, and his lust for violence continues. And Bunraku is like a comic-book morality play – even if its problems are resolved by some juicy action sequences and occasionally squidgy violence.
Top marks as well to Kevin McKidd whose Killer No. 2 is a psychotic toe-tapping Fred Astaire – a scary thought in itself – replete with cane and dapper hat. His unexpected Yorkshire accent comes out of left field adding to Killer No.2’s sense of unpredictability. Pale-faced and death-like, his unhealthy palour makes for a repellent and intriguing villain whose comeuppance is devoutly to be wished. Ron Perlman, like the evil wizard of Oz he’s supposed to be, is on the sidelines for most of the film but is suitably jagged and world-weary. Only Demi Moore’s role as The Woodcutter’s amour seems out of place. It’s the one false note in a well-crafted film.
Witty and refreshingly original, Bunraku is a superior action film, proof of Hartnett’s coming of age and a cracking calling card for the impressive Gackt. This is one straight-to-DVD movie that definitely deserves a wider audience.