Utterly mental: Bunraku – Review

If you liked the art direction of Sin City and enjoy kung-fu films whose primary aim is to have as many moves per second as there are frames, then you’ll love this.

Here at TFR, we get a lot of films to review, and while I’m content to sit down and immerse myself while maintaining a reviewer’s mindset, it’s a rare thing for me to actively spam “mine , mine mine mine” in an email response to my editor. Bunraku made me do that, and I’ll tell you why – because it’s a kung fu film about samurai and cowboys, starring Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore, Kevin McKidd, Josh Hartnett and a man known only as Gackt.

It’s a shockingly high-profile cast-list given how little attention’s been given to Bunraku, and the film’s investment in these actors pays major dividends. Harrelson stars as the local bartender, happily cleaning glasses and pouring drinks until a samurai (Gackt) – still a powerful man on this future Earth where all firearms are banished, despite missing his sword – walks in and demands help in finding his father’s medallion. The assistance comes in the form of a cowboy (Hartnett), and together they take on a city full of gangsters who use nothing but blades and fists to take out their enemies.

I enjoyed seeing these actors play roles way outside their comfort zones, although I don’t think Harrelson’s was too much of a stretch, he still pulled it off brilliantly. Gackt is fantastic, but I’ve always been a fan of that tightly-wound-honourable-warrior stuff, so that was a given. The actor who’s work I would like to highlight more than anyone’s is Hartnett.

Josh Hartnett, if you can cast your minds back for a moment, was a big thing in film, and a teen icon. Starring in Pearl Harbour, 30 Days of Night and 40 Days and 40 Nights, his name was gold. Recently, however, we’ve not seen as much of him, but his performance in this film is fantastic.

Cowboys are hardly a fresh addition to most films, but the idea of one who has to use fists, or knuckledusters at best, is original. Hartnett’s character, The Drifter, is a stone-cold bastard who has serious issues with the local crime lord, Nicola (who is a man and played by Ron Pearlman of Hellboy fame), although for most of the film you’re not sure why this is. Sadly the moment when his obsession is explained was lost on me, but Hartnett’s cool customer had me rooting for him throughout.

Demi Moore stars as Nicola’s go-to prostitute, and while this seems a little generic, they actually have a complex relationship that allows her to project a far better version of the character than may have been written.

She often clashes with Killer #2, Nicola’s right-hand-man. Played by Trainspotting and Grey’s Anatomy star Kevin McKidd, this fellow is one of the creepiest, most ominous fight film villains I’ve seen, and although his accent is about as consistent as Gerard Butler’s in 300, he helps humanise Nicola somewhat by positioning himself as the inhuman, cold second-in-command, waiting for the throne to become vacant.

I know I’ve not talked about the plot much, but realistically it’s about as complicated as an episode of SpongeBob. Samurai needs medallion, cowboy needs to kill Nicola, Nicola might just have the medallion. All 119 minutes of it are full of luridly colourful sets inspired by pop-up books and fist-tight fight choreography. The mish-mash of art styles and storytelling ideas is not something you’ll want to delve too deeply into lest you go mad, but as an enjoyable spectacle, I can’t really fault it. If you found Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon too serious and loved The Good, The Bad and the Weird, I can’t recommend this enough. Mental, but fantastic.

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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)
Utterly mental: Bunraku - Review, 4.0 out of 5 based on 2 ratings