No wonder “Bunraku” made such a fun trailer: the movie is all trailer, 120 minutes of tease and no payoff. The cast is impressive, the look is unusual, the martial arts sequences are impressively detailed for a low-budget indie, but the story, the characters, and the dialogue are all completely secondary to the world and the visual wow factor.
Though I’ve heard people compare the look of “Bunraku” to green screen films like “Sin City,” it seems closer to me to a live-action anime film made by a fan of Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” Everything is so exaggeratedly stylized that the visuals constantly call attention to their own construction. Western saloons sit beside Japanese pagodas on a giant, candy-colored soundstage in a weird Disney World dystopia. It’s some time in the future, after mankind has outlawed guns and returned to the sword as the peacekeeping weapon of choice. A powerful mob boss named Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) reigns as the supreme ruler of a frontier town until a cowboy (Josh Hartnett) and a samurai (Geckt) arrive, intent on challenging him and his gang of assassins. What do Hartnett and Geckt want with Perlman? What, for that matter, does Perlman want with anyone? For much of the movie, the characters’ motivations are left vague. Mostly, I think, they’re all just looking for excuses to get into elaborate kung fu fights.
Writer/director Guy Moshe obliges them. Scene after scene of “Bunraku,” including most of the last half hour, is given over to action and stunt sequences, all impressive for a movie of this size and budget. One in particular, a “Donkey Kong”-inspired long take that follows Hartnett as he plows through floor after floor of baddies as he makes his way through a prison, is easily one of the coolest movie fights of 2011. But with nothing driving any of the characters forward, all the empty spectacle eventually grows tiresome (at two hours, this movie is at least a half hour too long, too). The different factions and their quests never come together into anything more substantial than a bunch of cool-looking people doing cool-looking stuff.
Perlman, Hartnett, Geckt, and the rest of a cast that includes Demi Moore as Perlman’s lover and Woody Harrelson as a bartender who serves his drinks with a side of exposition speak in identical I’m-trying-to-sound-badass monotones; the backgrounds may be vibrantly colorful, but the people populating the environments are all depressingly gray. “Bunraku” doesn’t lack for ideas, just cohesive ones. The result is a movie that is less than the sum of the YouTube clip someone will surely make of all its best fight scenes.