Toronto: Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, Gackt star in 'Bunraku,' a martial-arts fantasia
No, I didn't know what the word meant, either.
Evidently, bunraku is a type of Japanese puppet theater, which makes sense after you've seen the film, but I'm not sure that title really communicates just how oddball an experience Guy Moshe's made for his debut feature. "Bunraku" was one of the films that is playing the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Midnight Madness programming, and it was a great crowd, ready and willing to lose themselves in the bizarre world the film creates.
It's set in the future, after we've finally used the nuclear option and set civilization back significantly. Mankind has decided to eliminate guns from the equation altogether. If you want to settle something with someone, you need to use fists or knives. The story "Bunraku" tells is a familiar one, which is sort of the point of the movie. As much as this is a pretty pop-up picture book world, it's also a story about the act of myth-making. It doesn't connect all the interesting material it introduces, but it's ambitious, and it's got an original sense of style. It's worth noting that Alex McDowell (the amazing production designer behind films like "The Crow" and "Watchmen" and "Fight Club" and "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is one of the film's producers, since production design is front and center in this movie. When I say that, I mean that the world is almost this living breathing thing around the characters, and that shouldn't be dismissed.
I think there's a larger idea at play here, the notion that we are all beholden to these ancient stories, these archetypes that play out over and over again, puppets on strings in plays that have been performed over and over and over. There's this great throwaway scene in the film where The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) is talking to The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), and The Bartender tells him about his hobby, making these cartoon books of old myths, and as he retells this one particular myth, it becomes apparent what he's actually telling is the story of "Spider-Man," but enough time now has passed that the details are different and only the big themes and the big ideas remain, digested from specific story to overall archetype. Love that.
The basic story is simple: there's a town that is under the thumb of a brutal boss. Everyone's afraid of him. Then a stranger rolls into town, and things get shaken up. In this case, it's two strangers. One is a cowboy with no guns, and the other is a samurai with no swords. Both of them are looking for revenge on the same person, and each for different variations on a theme. One is looking for something that was stolen, and one is returning with a message of revenge for a father done wrong. It's barely explained, with the hint of pain enough to justify these two on their paths.
Josh Hartnett is the cowboy in the fedora, a gunslinger with no gun, a man who pretty much punches his way to the top in his quest for revenge, and if anyone can be said to be the surprise discovery of "Bunraku," it's Hartnett. I've never completely bought him onscreen, but here, he seems to have discovered his calling. Hartnett has a great physical presence, and he feels completely relaxed and at-home in the fight scenes. He's tall, and he's got a hell of a reach on him, so he feels like a brawler, and he looks like he worked his ass off to get ready for the part. Just as important as throwing punches, though, is how an actor takes a beating, and it's always been my belief that one of the things that made Harrison Ford a movie star is that it's fun to watch him get his ass kicked. Hartnett's the same way here, and there's a very funny rubber-limbed looseness to the way he absorbs abuse that made me start to suspect Lucas and Spielberg cast the wrong guy when looking for the son of Indiana Jones.
The samurai without his his swords is played by Gackt! I think the exclamation point is actually part of his name, too. Gackt! is evidently a pop sensation back on Gackt!'s home planet, and that means they should do truly stellar interplanetary box-office once this is released there. They may even win over some Earthbound Gackt! fans, because he's fun in the film. He's a preening, hyperstyled pretty boy, but when it's time for the action scenes, he's more than capable. His fighting style is totally different than Hartnett's, a real testament to the work by fight supervisor Larnell Stovall ("Undisputed III"), a fresh new voice in the way fights look on film, and an amazing stunt team that really throws themselves into making Hartnett and Gackt! earn their way to the top.
The top in this film is represented by Ron Perlman as The Woodcutter, a powerful overlord who maintains The Nine Killers as his personal guards at all times. Killer #2 is played by Kevin McKidd as a bristling bundle of fury given to occasional flurries of violence and soft-shoe. The rest of the Killers are recognizable visual types more than characters, but offer a smart variety of opponents for Hartnett and Gackt! to fight their way through. Having said that, the film's biggest problem (and it has some) is that it takes almost 2/3 of the movie to get to the point where they really start fighting their way towards the boss. And in a film that's two full hours, it doesn't work. It's a film with a strong energetic opening, a loooooooooong middle that is punctuated by several strong fun sequences, and then a great close. That middle stretch, that anvil the viewer has to ride across before they get to the oasis of the action-heavy finish, is just plain too long, and no matter how old and tired a complaint that is, in this case, it's true. There's a lot of shoe leather in the middle of the film, people explaining themselves or talking around explanations of their behavior or hinting at backstory still unexplained. Way too much time is spent setting up the backstory between Perlman, Demi Moore, and Woody Harrelson, and it doesn't pay off well enough to spend that much energy on it in the final cut.
In a way, I shouldn't call this a final review, because I have a feeling this will have some work done between now and when we see it get a theatrical release. I just hope it does, indeed, get that theatrical release. When it's working, "Bunraku" is exhilarating because it's so audacious, and it gets some things really right in a way that is a kick to behold. Right now, though, it's like ice cream with candy and pizza and cake. It's too much, and at its current running time, "Bunraku" risks wearing an audience out instead of cranking them up. It's beautifully shot by Juan Ruiz Anchia, a guy who has (A) been around forever and (B) always done pretty consistently strong work on films like "Spartan" and " the Stephen Sommers "Jungle Book" and "Glengarry Glen Ross," and his glossy images are given able support by the lush score by Terrence Blanchard, which is above reproach. It's bold, it's playful, and it really seems to fit tonally with the film's look, which isn't an easy task for a composer, I suspect. There is a very, very good movie lurking in the current cut of "Bunraku," and I think it will take only the slightest encouragement and the right creative conversations to turn it from the slightly flabby confection we saw the other night into the lean mean kung-fu machine I suspect it can be.
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