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.