Sunday, September 12, 2010

TIFF 2010 Review: "Bunraku"

(Midnight Madness)

(USA, 2010, 90 minutes)
Directed by: Guy MosheCast: Josh Hartnett, Ron Perlman, Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore, Kevin McKidd, Gakt Camui

The title was, at first glance, intriguing--suggestive of classic hoary melodramas of yesteryear like "Hatari!" and "Mogambo". What it is, however, is yet another of those "another time/another place" genre mash-ups confined to stylized environs that arguably started with Walter Hill's "Streets Of Fire". That particular underrated 80s effort was (according to the director) "mock heroic in structure, comic book in dialogue" and while it was no box-office sensation, its influence can be found in countless films since ranging from "Sin City" to "Sky Captain".

"Bunraku" is apparently Japanese for "puppet theatre", but while there's a considerable smattering of Asian influence on the spirited, stylish yarn, I found myself thinking an awful lot about Simon Wincer's "Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man". Bear with me...

Past, present, future converge in Moshe's stagebound Never-Never Land, where guns are illegal and wars are won by fist and blade. An unlikely team-up of timeless archetypes the American Cowboy and the Japanese Ronin launches the expected quest tale to dethrone a despot (well, unlikely to anyone who's never seen "Red Sun" with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune).

The Drifter With No Name (Hartnett), wanders into the town of "Little Westworld" (nice), hell-bent on revenge, teams up with Yoshi The Samurai (Camui), who seeks to reclaim his family's precious ancient Dragon medallion. The Bartender (Harrelson) an old-timer with intimate knowledge of the region's history and key players, guides them towards their mutual foe, "The Woodcutter" (Perlman, shambling around like Bionic Bigfoot), but first, they must fight their way through his greatest warriors, the Nine Killers, climaxing in an encounter with the seemingly unstoppable Killer Number 2 (McKidd--guess who's Killer Number 1?).

Meanwhile, the Woodcutter's bride (Moore) plots with the local Proletariat Peasant to overthrow her husband...

Owing more than a little visual debt Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle", the combination of Western-and-Eastern archetypes, with a healthy dollop of Damon Runyon/"Guys And Dolls", "Bunraku" is certainly an arresting feast for the senses, providing one doesn't expect much in terms of narrative.

A western-with-swords isn't exactly fresh following two "Kill Bill" films and Miike's "Sukiyaki Django Western" and "Six-String Samurai", but Moshe manages to mine the hook for some impressive action setpieces, with Camui's martial arts prowess betraying the reality that he's in fact a Japanese pop star and not a journeyman stunt performer. "
Rome"s McKidd has a ball brandishing his blade like Zatoichi in a zoot suit.

"Bunraku" plays like one of those cannily-conceived, would-be "cult" efforts that seems a lot of fun to make, but as a ticket buyer, one wishes some of that spirit had spilled over into the viewing experience, which by the umpteenth sword battle, becomes wearying (I found myself counting down to Killer #2, and then realized there was still a Killer #1 to deal with before I could go home). It's easy to champion the undertaking on a technical level, but to be honest, it's not terribly enchanting or engrossing beyond that...

©2010 Robert J. Lewis