So once again we have survived.

Bunraku

tn_bunrakuBUNRAKU is a weird combination of elements. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where swords have replaced guns. It has fights choreographed by Larnell Stovall (UNDISPUTED III, NEVER BACK DOWN 2). It stars Josh Hartnett and a Japanese pop star named Gackt (so you know, like, lay off McG for a while) plus Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. It takes place in a highly stylized, DICK TRACY-esque city – I think built on sound stages more than digital – designed to look like origami or miniature models, or maybe a puppet theater stage, since the title comes from a Japanese form of puppet theater. Anyway it’s all angles and solid colors, no curves or decay or complex shapes.

The movie opens with paper puppets and animation, and whenever the camera pans through the city the buildings fold up like pop-ups. At one point Harrelson explains to Hartnett the parable of “The Arachnid” (an off-brand Spider-man) by showing him a pop-up book about it. The bad guy is Ron Perlman, who wears a giant Witchypoo type hat. When he takes it off he has long, matted hair and an ax, as if he filmed it on the way from one barbarian or viking movie to the next.

mp_bunrakuSo it’s a weird-ass, uncategorizable movie, but it still manages to be full of  stale notions, bringing back the archetypes of the quiet stranger from out of town, the western saloon, the gangster with the fedora, all that type of shit. This is far from the first or best movie in the last couple years to try that, or to have main characters with generic names like “The Drifter” and “The Bartender.” And that would be fine if they didn’t have painfully self-conscious pseudo-hard boiled third person narration pointing it out all the time. The singer Mike Patton (I AM LEGEND) was enlisted to do this, and nothing against him but it’s unbearable and way too frequent. This world would seem interesting if it slowly revealed itself to us through situations and what not. Instead it’s all told to us in a really grating, self-satisfied tone. It’s the old cliche that just because you point out it’s a cliche doesn’t make it not a cliche.

Occasionally he says tough guy lines, like when Hartnett punches a guy and he says “Happy birthday, fucker!” I don’t even know what it means.

It’s also another one of those movies with killers ranked by number trying to get the number one spot, like PISTOL OPERA, or the beginning of WARRIOR’S WAY, or the cartoon AFRO SAMURAI. In this one little cartoon signs pop above their heads to tell you their numbers. #1 is Perlman, #2 is his henchman played by Kevin McKidd (Lucius Vorenus from Rome). He’s a smooth, bowler-hat-wearing gent with a sword cane. He does dance moves while elegantly killing 20 attackers. The fights are well choreographed and shot and edited clearly. And of course the sets are cool. The movie is actually produced by Alex McDowell, the production designer of THE CROW, FIGHT CLUB, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, THE CORPSE BRIDE, WATCHMEN and other nice looking movies.

My favorite scene would have to be the poker scene. Hartnett manages to get into a game with the reclusive Perlman. But because the crime boss is so untouchable he plays from out of the room, projected onto a screen (somehow from scratchy black and white film even though it’s live). The game is rigged, with lackeys standing above the ceiling with opera glasses, looking at people’s hands and communicating tips to Perlman via teletype. But Hartnett’s been established as good at card tricks, so it’s still a battle.

Later there’s a pretty cool car chase shot from above like a video game, and a breaking-a-guy-out-of-jail scene with a similar style. Like SCOTT PILGRIM, it makes old fashioned video game sound effects as he knocks out the different guys.

So what is it supposed to be? Is it supposed to be like a video game? Yes. And also origami, and a children’s pop-up book, but also a puppet show, but a western and a gangster movie or musical but a samurai movie, and also it does that thing where the live action gets traced over and it turns into really shitty comic book drawings for a little bit. I like that they’re putting a bunch of crazy shit in there but I feel like none if it has any reason or purpose, it’s just a list of shit with no subject at the top. I mean, I’m glad they were excited. But I feel like it could use either a meaning or a purpose or a vague sense of an internal logic of some kind or a plan for what it was supposed to be about or something like that. It should seem like the person who made it had thought it through somewhat.

That person who doesn’t seem to have done that is writer/director Guy Moshe, from a story by prolific b-action producer/writer Boaz Davidson (DELTA FORCE 3, US SEALS II, MANSQUITO, UNDISPUTED II, MEGA SNAKE, NINJA, THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN). I guess you could say Moshe shows potential because he’s at least trying to do something ambitious and unusual, but in my opinion he needs to learn how to focus it into a real story.

Hartnett’s kind of an interesting phenomenon. He’s hunky and often seems kind of flat and not so smart, and he’s in some bad movies, but you gotta admit he’s pretty adventurous in his choices. I mean, he’s not even 35 and he’s already worked with Robert Rodriguez, Sofia Coppola, Michael Bay, Ridley Scott and Brian DePalma, and played Michael Myers’s nephew and was pretty good fighting vampires in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. So I can see why he would say yeah, I’ll wear a fedora, grow a mustache and learn martial arts for this origami, uh, Japanese post-apocalyptic puppet video game western comic strip thing or whatever. I was spacing out when you explained it but I trust you that it is a thing that makes sense and everything.

In my opinion Woody Harrelson is wasted as the bartender who explains alot of the stuff in between the parts where the narrator is explaining all the stuff. If he’s supposed to be Woody from Cheers when he’s older then he grew up to be not as funny. “The Bartender” is supposed to be their fighting mentor, but he just watches them fight and doesn’t show them anything. But I guess that’s the idea. I guess this character is arguably a little better than the one he was wasted playing in 2012.

In alot of ways this is like a much weirder version of WARRIOR’S WAY. Both are American movies that combine a samurai type story with a western, and put more emphasis on stylized visuals than the other aspects of the movie. But WARRIOR’S WAY is much more focused, it seems to have a specific idea of what it’s trying to do and it does it, rather than just squirting a bunch of random shit in all directions – samurais over here, KUNG FU HUSTLE guys over there, video game sound effects, origami, comics, whatever.

It’s an interesting movie to exist, and to look at, but not so much to watch.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 at 5:45 pm and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Bunraku”

  1. Who knows what the HUNGER GAMES movies are gonna be like, but I was glad to see that Woody Harrelson got a meatier role in those than he usually is saddled with these days. Ever since NATURAL BORN KILLERS the dude has been godly to me.

  2. Geez, man. Between this and SUCKER PUNCH, it sounds like a lot of people are going through “kichen sink design” in their filmmaking these days (in terms of “throwing everything in but the…”, not in the ’50s British drama sense of the term). There was a time when I would have loved collisions of all this COOL STUFF in my movies. That time is when I was eight.

    I hate being such a grown-up all the time, but I feel more and more like I’m saying “but what is it in SERVICE of?” when I see trailers for BUNRAKU and SP. Even SIN CITY was a little like, “I know you CAN do it, but why DID you?” Although that world seemed a little more unified in its setting and “rules” than this.

    Is it possible to be suffering from Badass Depression? Maybe that’s what’s going on with me.

  3. @Mattman, I think the big difference between the Scott Pilgrim the movie and Scott Pilgrim the book is that in the book, there does seem to be a reason for all that videogame stuff: he’s a huge nerd, he loves videogames, he sees his real life problems as videogame obstacles. It’s like beating up your girlfriend’s exes like they’re videogame bosses is how you picture the difficulty of accepting the fact that you’re not your girlfriend’s first boyfriend, and that she comes with baggage, when you’re a huge nerd. In the movie it’s just “hey look, a bunch of cool special effects!”, and they look very cool, but the main character in the movie is not really a nerd, he doesn’t even play videogames other than a dancing game for non-nerds, and the only character who’s shown playing videogames seems like a loser for it: his cool friends play instruments, he plays Zelda, what a loser. So there’s no real reason for Scott to see his life as a videogame, and the movie is just about “cool looking weird shit happens for 100 minutes”.

  4. Happy birthday, fucker is a Faith No More line, is what that means.

  5. @Toxic, See, I greatly enjoyed SCOTT PILGRIM the movie, irrespective of the book (which I wasn’t even familiar with before seeing the movie). SCOTT PILGRIM had a point of view for all its lunacy and “can you top THIS?”ness that I was able to get into the spirit of easily, while being constantly aware that people even ten years older than me, who didn’t grow up immersed in Nintendo, were going to have a hard time with it. Whether nerdier or geekier than the protagonist of the books*, I could get behind this Scott Pilgrim’s perspective and the movie’s because nothing felt out of place in depicting an adventure game-ish world except maybe the Seinfeld joke (which everyone found pretty funny, anyway).

    By contrast, something like BUNRAKU — and, no, I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m judging a book by its cover and a Vern review here — seems incongruous to me. It’s NOT a traditional bunraku world brought to life? Okay, fine. But neither is it film noir (the narration) nor an animated world (origami landscapes) nor period badassery (swordfights) nor modern badassery (secret poker games). It’s buffet-style action moviemaking. Because everything is permitted, nothing is true.

    You can be your own genre once in awhile, if you have a strong enough vision. THE MATRIX blended a lot of disparate elements and influences, too, but married them to a plot that explained why they could coexist and characters you cared about. You can only make that kind of lightning strike very occasionally. With BUNRAKU, SUCKER PUNCH, GAMER, et al., I feel like a lot of filmatists with a lot of technical skill are right now building rooftops full of lightning rods and saying, “Well? Hurry up, God!”

    *”A geek is a kid who has everything going for him, he just doesn’t know it yet. By contrast, a nerd will be a nerd all of his life.” – John Hughes

  6. Yeah, that sounds about right, Vern. Wanted to love BUNRAKU, but it didn’t all work for some reason.

    Larnell said when he got the script for this one, there was a bunch of blank pages where it just read, “They fight,” and it was his job to choreograph all that. I believe he said he got to set up & choreograph/direct 34 fight scenes in BUNRAKU. So that in itself kind of makes this essential viewing for some of us here, but it’s a shame it doesn’t all click to become great.

  7. yes!! a vern mention (albeit parenthetical) of THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN!!! guess i will have to content myself with those meager scraps in lieu of an actual vern review of the bona-fide masterpiece of the films of cinema.

    vern, gackt is indeed very famous and popular over here. he was one of the pioneers of a genre of music called “visual-kei” (visual-style), which is kinda like a mix between goth and glam rock, with a heavy emphasis on theatrics. not a big fan of his music, but he’s kind of an interesting character, and sometimes a compelling actor. how was he? also, did he speak english in the movie??? i can’t help but notice he had no lines in the trailer. it’s extremely rare for any japanese person, even actors, to be able to speak passable english, which is one of the reasons japanese characters in hollywood movies are so often played by non-japanese actors, if ken watanabe is unavailable, already playing another character in the movie, or too vagina-lacking. so, i’m curious how gackt acquits himself.

    Toxic – while i think SCOTT PILGRIM was a’ight, if a little over-loved by some, i think you are being a little too harsh on it. i haven’t read the comics, but i imagine that there is a lot more room to fill out the details in a several-volume comic book than there is in a 2 hour movie (and even that movie seemed filled to the brim with details), and i think you kind of get implicitly how big video games are to scott and his buddies just based on the fact that they view the world in terms of video game tropes. i did, anyway (again, not having read the comics). so even though they never showed him playing video games, i still felt that this was a world where the video game reigned supreme, pretty much right off the bat with the universal logo.

  8. @Mattman & Gary: I’m not even a fan of the Scott Pilgrim comics and I didn’t hate the movie, I thought it was ok and looked really good, I just thought the whole “his life is like a videogame” thing was better justified and more interesting in the books.
    As I said, in the movie, you never get the idea that they even like games, I guess you can assume they do because their life looks like a game, but it actually kind of seems that they don’t, because other than the fake Dance Dance Revolution thing that Scott plays with the high school girl, the only one you see playing is Young Neil, and the fact that he mentions playing is one of the movie’s jokes, it just shows that he’s the un-cool guy of the gang because his friends are musicians and he’s a nerd.

  9. I think the Video Game visuals of SCOTT PILGRIM were already justified by the fact that it’s a story about guy who has to kung fu a group of cartoony villains until they explode to coins, and its all depcited as something that happens in this world every day.

    I also give SIN CITY lots of slack, because here they just tried to keep the visual style of the comic books alive. I don’t think it works 100% successful, but at least they embed the visual style in some good stories instead of going only for the wow-can-you-believe-how-cool-this-is effect.

    I really like the term “kitchensink movie”, btw and I’m gonna use it for films like CRANK 2, that seem to use the notes from a late Saturday night brainstorming session as a shooting script.

  10. Well that’s exactly my problem with SCOTT PILGRIM, the movie: in the books I thought none of that was supposed to be taken litterally, it was just “he loves games, so he fantasizes his life as a game”, in the movie his life litterally is a videogame just because it looks cool on the big screen, but it’s also completely meaningless. Which I guess is still alright and doesn’t make it a bad movie, I just thought the whole thing worked better in the books. In the books it seemed like an original way to tell a completely unoriginal story, in the movie it’s just an excuse to show cool special effects. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is probably the reason why I’d describe it just like Vern described BUNRAKU: “It’s an interesting movie to exist, and to look at, but not so much to watch.”

  11. “In the books it seemed like an original way to tell a completely unoriginal story”

    That was my first thought about the movie. They took your typical quirky indie hipster romcom, that between GARDEN STATE and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER had been done to death and turned it into a surreal action movie.
    I still don’t get the Seinfeld scene, though.

  12. billydeethrilliams

    November 4th, 2011 at 5:09 am

    Vern: The “happy birthday fucker” line may be a reference to Mike Patton’s former band Faith No More’s song The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. I haven’t seen the movie so this may be my love of FNM getting in the way.

  13. This review somehow simultaneously makes me think I would dislike this movie and also makes me want to watch it.

  14. Even if I wasn’t a gamer or a geek, I’d still not have a problem with SCOTT PILGRIM’S style. I’d just accept it as “how that world works” and go with it, because I found it a lot of fun anyway. I don’t think there needs to be an in-story explanation to justify it(although for what it’s worth, one unfilmed alternate ending they came up with was that it was all a delusion Scott was going through, as he went around systematically murdering all the ex boyfriends and leaving a handfull of change at the scene every time). I’d attribute the style just as much to Edgar Wright as I would the source material, as he directed the tv show SPACED, which was along the same lines, though not as extreme. Also, to those saying Scott and his friends don’t seem to be all that much in the way of gamers, there are a number of details that show they are. First off, the band’s name, Sex Bob-omb, is a Super Mario reference. Scott knows why Pac Man is named as such, and he at one point shows excitement that he’s learned how to play the bassline from Final Fantasy II, while wearing a shirt that either depicts a Space Invader, or is at least Space Invader inspired. The fact they’re not shown playing games more is because when they’re together it’s typically as a band, either practising or performing, so wouldn’t be doing that stuff anyway.

    Oh, and I’ve always found dance video games their own special type of nerdy, myself.

  15. Saw a rough version of this at a free screening 2 years ago, and Vern’s review is pretty much spot-on. There are so many great things about it, but it never really congeals. Also, Ron Perlman looks like he’s wearing pajamas.

  16. I saw this one a little over a year ago at Fantastic Feast here in Austin and I really enjoyed it. Vern, I can see your point, but I thought you would enjoy this one more.

  17. How are you going to have Mike Patton narrate your movie when you could have him write the score instead? At least the Crank 2 guys knew the score.

  18. Virgin Gary–I know what you mean about Japanese actors and English. When I saw Sunshine in a Nagoya theater I did so with a few of my punk Japanese friends. Man, you should have heard them gasp when they realized Hiroyuki Sanada spoke fluent English. They even muttered, “captain,” out loud, and as you know, getting the Japanese to say anything in a theater is a real achievement. What I dug is that they were so proud of him. Even though he died off quickly, that he spoke English so well, was in charge for even a little while, and died a good death (if only I had that much composure when I get baked by the sun) raised him in their eyes a few beats.

    On the Gackt front, I always dug his commercials. I found it interesting that this deeply satan-worthy Goth character could be so deadpan funny while selling breath mints. It reminded my of how Beat Takashi could make these absolutely brutal yakuza flicks, and then turn around and do a children’s variety show. What I’m getting at is that in Japan there’s no contradiction in those acts the way there would be over here. You can be hardcore in a movie, and then host a game show, all without losing credibility. Your image can be fluid, as long as each iteration entertains.

    Last bit: I heard that the whole visual kei thing has morphed to include teen girl pop now. Is that true? If so, does this mean that Hello Kitty is in league with Lucifer? I’m back in the states now, so give a brother an update on the inner Japanese crazy if you please.

  19. hey bad seed – yeah, that contrast was really funny to me when i first moved here, seeing a brutal kitano movie then flipping the channel and seeing him on a variety show wearing a goofy beatles wig.

    i have to say i’ve been a little bit out of the loop with japanese pop culture lately though because i haven’t had a tv for a few months. they switched to all digital tv here this year, and i can’t really afford to buy a new tv right now (sad). so, i’m not sure about the visual-kei girl pop thing. though i have seen girl pop bands dressed in kind of that style i guess. sorry i don’t have more info for you.

    oh and yeah hiroyuki sanada is a bad-ass. i wonder why he hasn’t been in more hollywood movies. oh, i just remembered he had a pretty big role on LOST (but i didn’t watch it). i saw an interview with him on tv here where he was talking a lot about spending time in america, learning english, and working in western projects. he was even in a shakespeare play in either new york or london (i forget which) performing IN ENGLISH. he said it was terrifying but that he always goes after those kinds of challenges. cool dude.

  20. I defer to Vern here – I dug BUNRAKU a fair bit but I couldn’t fall in love with it.

    Considering it’s relatively small budget it’s a visual marvel, it really is, with some lovely touches (such as when Hartnett goes into a club through a bullet-chamber doorway and is “loaded” into the place).

    It’s definitely got a lot in common with THE WARRIORS WAY, but that had more heart.

    Gackt was really good in this, I thought, although I must admit to not having a clue who he was prior to seeing it.

    Sanada is the balls and it’s great to see him get some love on here. I think his big thing nowadays is Shakespeare – hence the fluent English, perhaps.

    I read somewhere that he was on film sets with Sonny Fucking Chiba (actual full name) so often as a kid that he was seen as one of the family. Which alone makes him cooler than pretty much anyone ever.

    If you guys get the chance and haven’t already, check out the awesome Chiba-Sanada films SHOGUN’S NINJA, ROARING FIRE and LEGEND OF THE 8 SAMURAI.

  21. Also on the Chiba-Sanada front, NINJA WARS. It’s low on Chiba but high on dementedness.

    Further also, for something that’s so much about the visuals as BUNRAKU is, that poster is pretty damn awful.

  22. Saw this at last year’s Fantastic Fest and was equally underwhelmed. Like the look but not enough to sustain.

    I actually found the fights unimpressive because the actors didn’t have big budget Hollywood Matrix time to train. Good effort.

  23. Saw this the other day and just reread your review. Shocked to learn that Larnell Stovall did the choerography for the fight scenes, as there was nothing here that impressed me (except maybe the prison break-in scene). Basically Josh Hartnett’s special fighting technique was to hit people, really hard. With his fists. No wonder that guy was unbeatable. And Gackt looked like a Michael Jackson type plastic surgery victim to me. Little bit scary.

    I did really like Lucius Vorenus though, I think he’s the only one that got through this unscathed.

  24. Just saw this and I actually quite enjoyed it. I dunno if it needed to be as long as it was and there was definitely a bit too much going on, but I just really enjoyed the visuals to it, the action was comprehendible, there was a couple of cool characters. Also it’s funny what they do with Woody and Demi’s characters’ backstories, as it’s like a weird reimagining of INDECENT PROPOSAL.

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