Review: Bunraku (2010)


Starring Josh Hartnett, Gackt Camui, Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore

Fight Choreography by Larnell Stovall

Directed By Guy Moshe

When it comes to American martial arts films, there isn’t a lot of style to them, unless they happened to be full of wire-fu and computer effects (thanks, Yuen Woo Ping!) They are pretty straight forward, and the fight choreography ranges from outright insipid to pretty damn good. Larnell Stovall represents that “pretty damn good” for a new generation of fight choreographers that come from the Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 & 3) tree along with JJ Perry, Steve Wang and others. Larnell even helped an actor go from the bottom of the heap to nearly nabbing the role of Spider-Man for the new film coming out soon. From Undisputed 3, Never Back Down 2,  to the Mortal Kombat Legacy series, Stovall is swiftly becoming the go-to fight choreographer, and he doesn’t disappoint with Bunraku, the most visually interesting martial arts films to come down the pike in many a year.

Bunraku begins as the narrator sets the stage for the world, one in which guns are no longer allowed, and in an unnamed town the people are ruled by Nicola, also known as the Woodcutter (Perlman) who rules the town with an iron fist, and has a group of warriors known as the Killers and his Red Army. Killer #2 (McKidd) is his main general, a  sadistic warrior who dispatches his enemies with cane sword. Nicola also has a mistress who has a backstory you’ll find out about as the film goes on, and her connection to the Bartender (Harrelson). Things seem to go hunky-dorey until two men arrive in town: A samurai with no sword named Yoshi (Gackt) who is looking for a medallion owned by his father, and the Drifter (Hartnett) a gambler who is looking to meet with Nicola for reasons to be revealed later. Happenstance brings the two men together, and both, for different reasons, fight to destroy Nicola and his hold over the town once and for all…

Bunraku is unlike any martial arts film to come down the pike in many a year. The backgrounds, just as the story, is all told through the prism of a pop-up book. The bold colors remind me of Dick Tracy, and the backgrounds also remind me of Sin City doused in crayola crayons. The narrator only adds to the feel, and the costumes are all western wear, so there is this spaghetti-western, samurai, martial arts mashup that never gets boring, even in the dialogue scenes, which you may have to rewind and listen to as you may get distracted by the colors and sets in the background. Guy Moshe does a fantastic job with every part of this film and keeping the story, look, and fighting within the style that permeates the entire film, and kudos for just making the film damn fun. Josh Hartnett is great as the Drifter, and while he doesn’t have the gravitas of a Clint Eastwood he does acquite himself well. He is surprisingly good in his fight scenes, but more on that in a moment. Gackt is new to me, a pop singer from Japan who is absolutely fantastic as Yoshi. He is the heart of the film, and the best fight scenes, and he really sells it all and has the movement and grace to show that he could have a future in these kinds of films if he chose. Ron Perlman is as good as always, but isn’t in the film all that much. Even less in the film is Demi Moore as Alexandra, who has an ultimately forgettable side story that doesn’t really have the payoff I would’ve liked to have seen. Woody Harrelson is, well, Woody Harrelson, but that is in no way a bad thing. Next to Gackt Kevin Mckidd really steals the show here, as the slimy yet charismatic Killer #2. While Ron Perlman doesn’t really fight in the film, McKidd gets a bunch of fights throughout the entire film, and does a great job with each and every one of them, which is impressive as I don’t think he knows any martial arts. That brings me to Larnell Stovall.

The fights in this are really, really good, and all of the Gackt fights are fantastic, especially his fight with Killer #4 and the final sword fight between himself and McKidd. The best Josh Hartnett fight is the one between himself and the gang of acrobat killers who ambush him, and the big fight between the townspeople (all of whom train in Japanese swordsplay) versus the Red Army, and even Larnell Stovall himself participates in this fight and an earlier fight versus McKidd. What I notice Stovall has is the ability to make people who don’t really know martial arts “speak” the language of it by relating it to simple movements they are already familiar with, and then finds a way to string it all together, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by Josh Hartnett and Gackt’s fights. Stovall also doesn’t deal with wire work, which I am thankful for. You’ll see none if it in this film.

Bunraku is a film that finally breaks the mold for American martial arts films, and Larnell Stovall continues to conquer the world of fight choreography, one film at a time.

(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):

CHOREOGRAPHY: (9) What more can be said? Stovall gets the most out of his actors, and they respond with some of the best fight scenes this side of Hong Kong.

STUNTWORK: (8) The stuntmen do a great job here, particularly with the final group fights to end the film, and the acrobat gang fight versus Josh Hartnett. Good work here.

STAR POWER: (9) You see the cast list. Toss an appearance from Mark Ivanir (Gaga from the Undisputed films) and this is nearly gold. Gackt is a revelation, and I cannot wait to see where his career goes from here.

FINAL GRADE: (9) Bunraku is an exciting martial arts story wrapped in the trappings of a children’s pop-up book that thrills with great fight scenes and a career making performance by both Gackt and Kevin McKidd.

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10 Responses to “Review: Bunraku (2010)”

  1. Man, kungfucinema.com gave this movie such a scathing review I was going to avoid it at all costs. But now with this extreme opposite take on the flick I’m going to HAVE to see it and decide for myself. Time to move this to the top of the Netflix queue.

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    • I waited until after I wrote this review to see what others were saying, and it seems to be that either you hate it or you love it, and not much in between. When the film started I was “what the…” and then quickly understood what this film was doing and enjoyed it greatly. I love the fact that it tried to do something a bit different, and to me it succeeded. Some believe it didn’t. Let me know what you thought of it!

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  2. Kevin McKidd actually hired Larnell Stoval to make a promo reel to show that he could cut it in the screen fighting stakes. You can probably find it on youtube (which I don’t have access to right now, or I would provide a link!)

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  3. great review Michael!

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  4. Thanks, DM! MOW, I’ll go out on youtube and find that. Thanks for the heads up!

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  5. Well, finally had a chance to see this, but I’m sad to report that I’m in the opposite camp – I think this movie was absolutely terrible, in virtually every respect. The story (or stories, plural, there seemed quite a few more pointless subplots than necessary) was generic, and honestly I felt the biggest missed opportunity of the whole thing. You want to make a martial arts movie, you have a basic set-up of 9 killers that can challenge each other and take each others’ place, all these roles cast by people who can actually do on-screen fighting, and yet we focus on an unknown, unnamed cipher character (Hartnett) that’s just a conspicuously stereotypical noir lead and an honorable modern-day samurai (Gackt) both of whom we never learn much about, and whose motivations are completely paper thin and never developed? And this damn story runs for over TWO HOURS?!??!?

    The first hour was boring as sin, the second hour picked up the pace and started doing some interesting things, but honestly nothing that hasn’t been seen elsewhere, and done far better. I thought the actors all gave decent performances, but no one had anything worthwhile to do, or say, or achieve. While I generally admire that they used CGI sets in a way that came closer to the kind of abstract use that movies like CASSHERN and GOEMON uses (rather than the utterly uninspired 300 or SUCKER PUNCH literal style), I nonetheless don’t this we can any longer call generic comic book style visuals in cinema as creative, unique, etc. I know you feel it’s more a “pop-up book” style, but the pop up effect only occurs a few times throughout the film, and the comic caption boxes for the subtitled Japanese is a dead giveaway…. The whole time I felt like I was watching SHOOT ‘EM UP, only with no guns, and lots of knives. And frankly S’EU is in my opinion one of the worst movies ever made.

    But let’s talk action set pieces: most are obviously lifts from superior MA films. The Hartnett walk-around-the-building-in-one-shot bit can’t help but remind of a similar scene from The Protector, and the outdoor street battle between Hartnett, Gackt, and the jumping, flipping gang is right out of City Of Violence. In both cases, though, there’s little to see here. A few well-shot punches thrown, a moderate stunt fall or two, and a LOT of flipping and leaping around to no actual purpose, not as part of any choreography, but just random flipping while they taunted the main characters. Uhm…fun. I guess.

    Gackt’s fight with the double-sword wielding killer and Hartnett’s fight on the trapeze set both had potential, but the cutting between the two fights, literally after every few moves, was aggravating and trashed possible tension. Plus, again, we had an acrobatic performer flipping around Hartnett a lot, to little practical purpose, and offering no real sense of building rhythm to the fight. Since the protagonists can’t reciprocate, the aerial moves never blend into the rhythm of the rest of the fight, and in fact, honestly, ruin it. They reminded me a lot of the par kour bits in CASINO ROYALE or the 4th DIE HARD movie, which always felt superflous and tacked-on – Hollywood trying to offer a popular trend but not really understanding how to make it fit, and not bothering to alter the formula of the rest of the movie to make it fit. And both fights were, ultimately, pretty short.

    Then we move toward the finale, where we have a large scale group battle with, once again, a lot of flipping about with not a lot of focus or continuity to the fight. Just flipping and falling and sound effects. Then the one-on-one fights begin. These are the best of the movie, but nowhere near the caliber of HK or even other Stovall, Perry, or Team Alpha flicks. They were slow-ish, short, once again suffering from a lot of cutting back and forth between protagonists (I don’t know why the director thought this was a good idea. It kills all build up of ALL the fights) and no rewind-worthy moves. Not even slow-mo worthy. Honestly McKidd’s fight reel on YouTube was more exciting than his final battle with Gackt, thought that one fight actually managed a degree of effective dramatics.

    All in all, a total missed opportunity. Absolutely awful story, characters that are no fun (and there’s WAY too damn many of them!), subplots that serve no purpose, and over-long run time, a generic art style, and fight choreography that tries hard but just looks like it’s trying hard, and not often succeeding.

    If I had to rate this a la Kiai-Kick style:
    CHOREOGRAPHY (5) – Lots of movement, to little effect, no build up or effective flow of fight scenes. Stovall has done better, well, everywhere.
    STUNTWORK (6) – Stuntmen do a fine job, but aside from an occasional fall down a flight of stairs, not much happening here.
    STAR POWER (6) – Many names, none at the peak of their careers, but the cast list will inspire many to watch this film out of sheer curiosity.
    FINAL GRADE (5) – Generic with a capital “G” for a western action movie with comic- and noir-flavored aspirations. Neither fights, story, nor style ever rise above the purely average. Though the production values are high.

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    • Thanks for getting back with your opinion, Dave! Well done counter-review. You should be on my podcast roundtable! (Wait…did I say podcast?) As I said, you either love it or hate it (or strongly dislike). We fell on either side of the fence on this one but I do agree about the camera work on the fights if not on the fights themselves, but it didn’t really affect me too much. The only story beat I didn’t care for was anything involving Demi Moore.

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    • P J Italiano Says:

      What a great “counter-review.” I read your review five times. I am really interested in this style of writing. Reading you guys stuff is really an education for me. I watched the film last night on Netflix. I then read a broad array of reviews to see what other writers wrote and what their respective thoughts were. In my humble opinion, the Japanese actor had a beautiful face and I thought he was a she. I could not see how Josh H. or the Japanese actor had the power to overpower all of those evil-doers. When Josh H. went to the jail to break out his friend, he was running and punching those police officers. His punches just looked weak to me. Now in Blood and Bone, when MJW hit those evil ones, his punches looked powerful. I am taking strength training and martial arts classes now. Watching the students in the advanced classes reveals that the higher up you go in the training –the stronger and more powerful you become. The advanced students “look” like they have power and strength to take on a mob of bullies. I enjoyed the film to pass time and relax. As far as rating on a scale of 1-10 those different categories, I lack the expertise to accomplish that task at this time. The benefit that I am receiving from watching these types of films is — they are giving me ideas for project implementation in my world.

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  6. excellent movie,
    it is what it is,
    a plain old kick butt movie with some pretty good dialogue and good pacing..
    not a breakthru in the fight scenes but not boring…

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  7. […] major misstep this film takes. The effects work on the backgrounds and movements remind me of Bunraku, but there’s a charm that film had that I don’t see here. That’s not to say that Sngmoo Lee […]

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