You can tell the makers of Bunraku were really excited about creating a cool, new movie world, because that's all the movie is: 118 minutes of effects, art direction, and genres. The story unites a gunslinger (Josh Hartnett) and a samurai (the androgynous Japanese pop star Gackt) for the purpose of killing a crime lord (Ron Perlman).
So it's a western, a swordsman movie, and a gangster epic, yet it's none of those things. I imagine the writer and director, Guy Moshe, wanted to see what would happen if he pretended a bunch of different iconic styles and archetypal characters could be compressed into a single film. Not like this they can't. Bunraku is what happens when your streaming service comes down with a virus and just starts spewing movies. It's pop that goes "blech."
Homage is tricky: too much and you can't see the allusion for the alluder. Moshe and his production staff either evoke or reference everything from German expressionism to Hong Kong martial arts movies, TV's Batman, Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, Terry Gilliam, comic books, Canadian fantasist director Guy Maddin, Sin City, Luc Besson, Kill Bill, Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, and the Japanese puppet theater that gives the movie its title. Those ingredients don't make a movie, they make a hoagie.
What, really, are Moshe and his talented crew doing with all of this - the elevator that switches floors the way a revolver switches chambers, the canted camera angles, the sound effects that seem to have sound effects, the dreadlocks, fedoras, bomber hats? What's Demi Moore doing here? And why cast her as the sort of concubine who says stuff like, "I could have been someone's woman, but instead I chose to be someone's whore"? Coming from the woman who played Hester Prynne and GI Jane, that line actually broke my heart. It's like Gloria Steinem publishing a brochure for mistresses who want to be housewives.
If Bunraku were serious about subverting or reinventing the genres it has cobbled together, Moore would play the gunslinger or the samurai or the crime boss. But no. All she gets are a couple of scenes that demonstrate that she still looks great soaking wet. Few of the movie's good ideas can pass without Moshe commenting on them. Woody Harrelson plays a bartender, and at one point he pulls out a pop-up book, explains the movie's plot in terms of good vs. evil, and more or less declares this a film for people with imaginations.
Elsewhere, the worst music Terence Blanchard has ever written cakes every scene, and a narrator speaks in movie-narration cliches ensuring that everything becomes even more obvious than it already is. "Things never go well before first going wrong," he says, "and then getting worse, which is one of many lessons our silent drifter has been learning for as long as he can remember." Pity the cookie that has to contain that fortune.
Bunraku *1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Guy Moshe. With Josh Hartnett, Gackt, Woody Harrelson, Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman, and Demi Moore. Distributed by ARC Entertainment (II).
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent's guide: R (bloody violence and profanity)
Playing at: AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24