Slick and original visual style but muddled storytelling.
It’s true. Sometimes, amazing visuals and a highly stylized way of telling a story makes you forgive a few flaws in the movie. That’s exactly the case with ‘Bunraku’ – it’s story is jumbled and goes into wierd tangents mid-way, but the film is spectacular and unique-looking to a point that all that won’t matter much.
Bunraku is set in a future where guns have been outlawed and the streets are run by criminals and Nicola (Ron Perlman) and his henchmen. The film follows a mysterious man (Josh Hartnett) who comes to town in search for revenge and a Japanese Samurai Yoshi (Gackt) who has his own agenda in mind. Teaming up with The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), they fight through the corruption and aim to gang up and kill Nicola and end his corrupt ways that are plaguing the city. And they do this in a highly stylized fashion.
The first thing t0 remember about ‘Bunraku’ is that it definitely brings a unique style into the mix. Firstly, the movie can’t be categorized into any one single genre. It’s a film noir, martial arts, samurai western action film with bits of detective noir and other genres built in. And the style here isn’t a pretentious style that is borrowed from other movies (although slight traces are present). Buranku is the term for a special kind of Japanese puppetry art form where paper cutouts are used to form backgrounds. It’s an intriguing style and the movie is aptly titled and does it full justice. Throughout the film, the backgrounds are stylized as paper cutouts and there’s no effort to make you believe that they’re real since that’s the point in the first place. The color palette is dreamy and neon-styled and so is the set design. The animated cutscenes that transition story points at times are also highly effective in giving the film a unique look. This style is arguably the only major thing going for it and is the main reason why people might take notice of the film. It looks real good and transports you into a whole new world.
But movies like ‘Sin City’ just don’t depend on the allure of their stylistic visuals themselves and actually carry and deep and coherent plot to them, which is what make them timeless classics. Sadly, the same can’t be said about ‘Bunraku’. Let’s just say that without the added advantage of a unique style, the movie wouldn’t even have been released. That’s because the plot sounds pretty interesting on paper but doesn’t sustain the overlong runtime of the movie. It’s a simple revenge plot underneath all the layers and if the movie would’ve been around 90 minutes long, it would’ve been a great film. But alas, the movie runs around 130 minutes which means the simplistic plot goes off into weird and sloppy subplots that don’t matter in the main path of the story. Of course, each of these random subplots are treated as excuses to show off some more action scenes and visuals but no amount of that can change the fact that they are unnecessary additions that bring the pace of the second half down to a grind.
To make up for it’s lackluster second act, the movie more than delivers on an action-packed finale that gears up in speed and pacing with one goal in mind – kill the bad guys. The progression is great and the actors give it their best with some extremely nifty action sequences that may be wacky sometimes but are very original in setpeices. When was the last time you saw a martial arts fight in a circus? One thing ‘Bunraku’ can be appreciated for is that it never aims to do the standard action scenes again and again. Each time, it wants to differentiate itself from other movies by adding a new element or something that makes every fight look much more compelling. All the way to the end, the movie actually delivers on the promise of thrills it made. It’s a blast to see our two heroes blow through e everything in their path with utmost elegance and the final scenes are handled very well.
Another major plus here is the acting talent the movie managed to nab despite it being an indie production. Josh Hartnett is a godsend in the role of a loner who comes to town wreaking havoc and once again proves that film noir is his excellent forte after great roles in ‘Sin City’ and ‘Lucky Number Slevin’. It’s brooding yet subtle roles like these that the guy plays best and pigeonholing him as leading man in Hollywood blockbusters doesn’t do him justice. Woody Harrellson is as amazing as usual in the role of a bartender who decides to help out two men on a mission. Japanese star Gackt however failed to impress in his American debut. He’s excellent when he’s fighting without a doubt, but falters when it comes to expressing any kind of emotion or acting chops. A better actor would’ve done the role more justice. Ron Perlman is great as the mysterious woodcutter and gets some pretty meaty dialogue scenes that he pulls off perfectly. Kevin McDonald as a ruthless yet goofy killer and Demi Moore as an escort are also effective.
In the end, ‘Bunraku’ will be remembered more for its visuals than anything else. It’s an ambitious effort that skimps on a coherent plot at times to indulge in its own beautiful world. Style over substance is definitely something that applies to ‘Bunraku’, but the style is so polished and well-done that the lack of substance only hurts the film a little bit.