Bunraku may be a traditional form of Japanese puppet theater dating back to the 1600s but director Guy Moshe's Bunraku is a cinematic smoothie, plain and simple. I take that back. With all the disparate aesthetic elements and visual approaches contained by the film, there is nothing plain or simple about it
The story, seemingly a twisted fairy tale, amounts to little more than an East-meets-West revenge fantasy. A fantastic intro employs puppetry and animation to explain that man's bloodlust eventually consumed the world that we are all used to. From its ashes arose a new society, one in which guns are outlawed and justice is administered by blades alone. Social hierarchy is determined by skirmishes between small gangs of fighters who hope to topple the wearer of the crown. Right now, the top dog is Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman)) who has enjoyed a lengthy reign thanks to his small army of trained killers. Among them are 9 men who Nicola favors above all. Even these 9 must fight each other in order to maintain their rank within Nicola's innermost circle, but Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd) isn't going to give up his post too easily.
Since every tale needs good to counter evil, we are introduced to the Drifter (Josh Hartnett) and Yoshi (Gackt). The Drifter says he's in town looking for a good game of cards but his insistence on playing Nicola face to face speaks to darker desires. Yoshi is a samurai who is trying to reclaim the medallion of his clan that was taken by Nicola many years ago. Although both men start out as strangers, they will have to work together if they hope to complete their respective missions. Helping them along is the Bartender (Woody Harrelson) who parcels out wisdom with his alcohol and can drive a mean getaway car when the occasion calls for it. Somewhere in the grey lies the character of Alexandra (Demi Moore). Once in love with the Bartender, she moved on to seemingly greener pastures with Nicola only to become his captive in the process.
Nothing I've said about the film so far has been especially earth-shattering and that seems to be just fine as far as Moshe is concerned. The director strives for a simplistic approach to the underlying material so he can completely focus his attention on the visual presentation. Everyone has seen films where a laconic cowboy or an honor-bound samurai takes on the oppressive regime of a despot. I would venture that not everyone has seen this take place in a world seemingly constructed out of paper where theatricality and outlandish artificiality are the norm. Bunraku may draw visual elements from all over the place including comic books, video games, Broadway, origami, expressionism (and the list goes on) but at all times it looks like an elaborately staged play where actors inhabit bright (and obviously fake) sets. It's a thrilling aesthetic that screams "In a world without rules, you can't accuse me of breaking any".
When he isn't adding more contrasting ingredients to the film, Moshe is busy loading it up with fights...many, many fights. Roughly every ten minutes, characters take a break from advancing the plot in order to beat the snot out of each other. Considering the film is two hours long, you can do the math on how much action is coming your way. Fortunately, Moshe working with fight coordinator Larnell Stovall gives us a ton of variety in the beatdowns. Hartnett's Drifter is a brawler so we get hand-to-hand when he's on screen and Gackt's Samurai prefers a blade which means plenty of bloody swordplay. Even McKidd's fighting style stays true to character as Killer #2 dispatches people with a flourish normally reserved for a Fosse number.
With so much of the running time devoted to action, you may think that the film's substance would suffer and you'd be right. Moshe is so focused on wowing us with a sensory experience that he doesn't bother to engage our minds on a deeper level. The deluge of fisticuffs and mano-a-mano showdowns cause the characters to remain stunted and undeveloped. Although they are well-acted, they don't offer us anything unexpected. The only exception to this is McKidd's Killer #2 who is such an exceptionally odd duck that he is simultaneously funny and menacing. While McKidd may own the most outstanding performance of the film, Josh Hartnett isn't too far behind. Hartnett plays against type and displays a Noir-inspired hard charm that suits his role.
Gackt plays things relatively straight but impresses in what is a physically challenging performance. Harrelson is on hand to provide comic relief and steals every scene he's in. In many ways, he is the heart of the film and I'm glad he gets as much screen time as he does. Perlman and Moore are given less to do and occasionally their inclusion in the film is puzzling. Perlman is suitably imposing but seems a bit bored as the world-weary Nicola. Moore feels even more out of place. She pops into the film without warning and exits without ceremony. Admittedly her presence softens the male-centric film but it still feels like stunt casting.