Review: ‘Bunraku’

Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson and Gackt star in "that rare action film whose originality can't be denied."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and while that may be true, Guy Moshe’s action spectacular Bunraku certainly comes close. A triumph of style over, but not entirely without, substance, Bunraku is a daring new film that takes familiar action movie tropes and makes them feel new and special with truly innovative cinematic techniques. It can’t quite sustain that novelty throughout its too-long 118 minute running time, but that’s a small price to pay for that rare action film that whose originality can’t be denied.

The story, such as it is, is a familiar blend of classical archetypes. It’s a dystopian future, again, and the city where Moshe sets his scene is controlled by a corrupt crime lord with a gang of deadly assassins at his beck and call. In walks a mysterious, quiet figure with the fighting skills necessary to right all the wrongs. Actually, in walks two of them: The Drifter, a brawler played by a particularly stylish Josh Hartnett, and Yoshi, a samurai played by a Japanese star known only as Gackt. Together they will fight and eventually team up to bring kingpin Ron Perlman and his right hand assassin Kevin McKidd to justice for their many crimes, in a story that questions the cycle of violence while simultaneously wallowing in it.


There’s not much originality at play in the above plot description, and that’s by design. A story too original or complicated would have made Bunraku an overwhelming and confusing affair when combined with first-time director Guy Moshe’s incredible visual flourishes. Moshe bases Bunraku on Japanese puppet theater, and his characters populate a pop-up world with ever-shifting, striking production design. Captions literally jump out of the character’s beautifully designed costumes, and phone conversations aren’t intercut between locations: the sets instead are placed right next to each other so the individuals on the phone occupy the same frame in entirely different locales. Moshe also allows distinct video game influences into his exciting production, from eagle-eyed car chases to a standout sequence in which Hartnett punches out an entire police station in a wide side-scrolling shot reminiscent of fond Kung Fu Master memories on the old 8-bit NES.

For a long while, Moshe’s dense stylizations and game cast (McKidd appears to be having a particular blast as an elegant sociopath) make the most of his simplistic storyline. The fight scenes are excitingly shot and the actors have enough room to make their characters unique: Gackt in particular crafts a badass who seems to lack self-confidence, evidenced by his fun performance as he tries to reason with his enemies before the action begins in earnest. Moshe also has a bizarre but refreshing take on his dialogue that is somehow as playful as it is sometimes stilted. But there just isn’t quite enough going on, plotwise, to keep Bunraku from dragging its feet in the second half. The movie clearly wants to end, but isn’t allowed to. (Demi Moore’s role seems like a particular distraction.) It remains a distinct cinematic experience, but it also lacks the discipline necessary to be a brief and superb one as opposed to an overblown display of ambition.

There are worse problems to have. Bunraku is available on Video on Demand today, but can be found in theaters on September 30th. It’s worth watching in both mediums, although I recommend the theatrical experience more. It’s a low-budget film but still “big” enough to benefit from a big-screen presentation. Although not without its flaws, it’s the sort of thing action movie fans should discover and appreciate for its many, many charms. I’m a fan.