Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dark Sin City of the Future: Bunraku

In the future, gangsters will respect the global gun ban, despite their willingness to murder, maim, white slave, and cheat at cards. This might seem to contradict the experience of thousands of years of human history, but it is really just an excuse to combine swords and cars in Guy Moshe’s Bunraku (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Our Easternized cyberpunky story takes place in a post-apocalypse not-Japan, where Eastern Europeans rule the underworld, and everything else by extension. Nicola the Woodcutter is the shadowy #1, who only leaves his hideout for his weekly poker game and the occasional meal at his favorite sushi restaurant. A nameless drifter wants in on that game. He seems to have a score to settle with the kingpin, but he lacks the funds to buy in.

Another mysterious stranger also wandered into town with a purpose. A master of a Zen-focused martial arts discipline, Yoshi has been charged with recovering his family’s heirloom medallion from Nicola. He happens to be traveling with a considerable roll. Yoshi and the Drifter ought to join forces, but perhaps they should first beat the snot out of each other for the sake of appearances.

Bunraku is one of the most frustrating action films of the year. Technically, it is consistently inventive, incorporating some hyper stylized animation inspired by the titular traditional form of Japanese puppetry. It also boasts some wickedly sardonic narration (by Mike Patton) and a funky score penned by jazz musician and film composer Terence Blanchard, who also added a brief but tasty trumpet solo to the opening sequence. It mashes up the imagery of retro-action and cyber-punk films quite effectively and features some very funny fight sequences clearly modeled after video games.

As an action protagonist though, Josh Hartnett simply does not have it. His Drifter is lethargic rather than quietly intense and that mustache just looks ridiculous on him. Japanese pop-star Gackt is not bad as Yoshi, but it is rather insulting to watch his character struggle to scratch out a draw against the Drifter. You probably already guessed Ron Perlman plays Nicola. It is his usual shtick, but it still works within the context of a self-aware B-movie. Arguably Woody Harrelson best acquits himself as The Bartender with no name, who guides Yoshi and the Drifter into an alliance, while seeming to be above it all in an amused kind of way.

Fifteen years ago or so, it would be hard to believe Harrelson and his Indecent Proposal co-star Demi Moore could reunite in a film with relatively little fanfare, but here it is. Echoes of that previous film can even be read into their characters’ relationship here. Moore is not bad either, but playing Nicola’s kept woman (to put it euphemistically) cannot be the most rewarding of gigs.

Yet, probably most distracting is Bunraku’s highly problematic use of Communist iconography and terminology. Eventually, the boys align themselves with the “Freedom” army of the “Proletariat,” who train under vaguely Cyrillic red letters decked out in Mao caps. Tragically though, the Red Cadres whom they evoke had nothing to do with freedom whatsoever, prosecuting the reign of terror known as the Cultural Revolution with wanton disregard for human life and dignity. Such sloppy symbolism in Bunraku is frankly rather shameful.

It is hard to think of a film so inspired in many respects that also got so much so far wrong. Credit cannot go to one man alone, it was a team effort. Though often cool looking, those hoping for a martial arts fix should wait for a future release from China Lion or Well-Go/Variance Film. Not recommended, Bunraku opens this Friday (9/30) in New York at the AMC Empire