“Things never go well before first going wrong and then getting worse; which is one of the many lessons our silent drifter has been hearing for as long as he can remember.”
Bunaku is the name of a 400-year-old form of Japanese puppet theater. These elaborately staged productions star intricately-detailed puppets operated by puppeteers dressed head to toe in black, who almost blend into the background, but never really do, making their puppeteering as hypnotic as the puppets and sets themselves. Although Bunraku’s genre movie mishmash doesn’t use puppets, with the exception of the opening title sequence, it does rely on many of the same lavish and surreal esthetics.
Director Guy Moshe said he wanted to make sure the audience could always symbolically see the puppeteers. So he made sure the sets appear artificial and staged on purpose, saturated the lighting palette in primary colors, filled the script with awesome one liners and canny fortune cookie wisdom (hence the extra quotes in this review), staged the fights to reflect everything from movie musical choreography to elaborate samurai sword ballets, and inserted music/sound effects cues which borrow heavily from campy sixties superhero television series and video arcades. He even occasionally literally shows the strings, complete with identification and rank cards attached. In short, you will either buy into his highly stylized world or you won’t within the first few minutes. I bought in.
In a post-apocalyptic world that banished guns and modern weaponry, a mysterious drifter who can kill with a single brass knuckled punch (Josh Hartnett), a bartender full of dangerous secrets, (Woody Harrelson) and an androgynous young samurai master (Gackt) plot revenge against a ruthless leader, Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Pearlman). To do so our heroes must conquer the Woodcutter’s army of red-shirt thugs run by nine diverse and deadly assassins (numbered in order of rank), who in turn are led by the unstoppable Killer No.2 (Keven McKidd); who fights like a suavely vicious Fred Astaire in a ruthless Bloodsport match. Throw in the samurai’s wise uncle (Shun Sugata), a restaurateur who boasts knife moves not found in most kitchens, his cute, impressionable cousin (Emily Kaiho) who doesn’t know how to stay out of trouble, a whore with a heart of gold (Demi Moore) who bears the child of Nicola the Woodcutter, but shares a secret past with the Bartender, and you end up with a heady stew of mixed genres.
The camera never stops moving. Cunning transitions swirl through stunning set pieces that set themselves up before your eyes like the intricately detailed pop-up art books The Bartender collects. Speaking of those pop-up art books, there is a funny scene where The Bartender uses such a book to tell a thinly veiled version of the Spider-Man origin to explain how with great power comes great responsibility.
Although the movie never takes itself too seriously, it doesn’t cross over into Scott Pilgrim vs. the World goofy, self-aware territory. Moshe and renowned production designer Alex McDowell’s stunning visuals (in his first feature film producer credit) pay homage to Kabuki, Banuku Theater, genre movies, Asian action, graphic novels, anime and video games.
Tributes run from the subtle, like unspoken references to Harrelson and Moore in Indecent Proposal, to the overt, like the long, single-take action sequences evoking Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns as well as the elaborately-staged Hollywood musicals of the forties. Sometimes it works and other times it falls dangerously close to Joel Schumacher’s neon fluorescence camp of Batman and Robin, but you can’t deny Moshe put it all on the line to bring you something so chock full of familiar notes from so many different sources, he ends up presenting a completely unique vision.
“I cut your uncle like a yellow tailed sushi roll.”
The Blu-ray’s 1080p, MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer runs an average of 29 Mbps in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 converted from its original 2.39:1. Due to the massive degree of digital manipulation, the image clearly looks like an HD production versus film. The resulting transfer boasts a clean glossiness, sharp colors, intense detail, solid black levels, and nuanced shadowing. Originating from purely digital sources, the video is absent any post-transfer digital scrubbing or edge halos, and the lack of grain prevents any artifacting.
“All this fighting, it’s not who’s right. It’s whose left.”
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is as forceful as the fight sequences in Bunraku. The ambience and individual gag effects take complete advantage of the rear channels. The SFX sweetens the rollercoaster sweeps and turns of the camera and complements every martial arts move. Terence Blanchard’s brilliantly gonzo soundtrack aggressively utilizes the full range of the LFE and surround as it playfully propels you through the movie.
“I’m the product of a f**ked up generation.”
- Audio Commentary with director Guy Moshe and actor Kevin McKidd. A few interesting anecdotes from an obviously amused McKidd complement the usual director boilerplate about how and why scenes were shot and effusive accolades for the cast. Moshe relishes pulling back the curtain, pointing out the practical effects versus the CGI and the amazing skill of his cast nailing the extended, single-shot fight choreography and doing their own dangerous stunts.
- Theatrical Trailer (2:27 HD)
This is a love it or hate it film. The director goes out of his way to keep any reality from creeping in the movie, but the acting and dialog is on a level not usually associated with films like this. If obviously fake sets pull you out of the story, don’t watch this film (and don’t go to any stage productions for that matter either). However, if you can get in groove with the movie’s bizarre rhythm, you will find yourself thoroughly entertained. Moshe creates some amazingly long single-shot sequences, with dazzling in camera tricks, giving the film a sense of immediacy and undeniable power. The Asian/Western action hybrid film rarely works; see The Warriors Way, but Bunraku throws in so many other styles in the mix the result is fun and relentless.
“Some people die for that rag they call a flag. Some die for a line on a map. Some die for a necklace. Others die for revenge, but freedom, now there’s an idea you can sell to the people.”