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Bunraku -- Film Review

The Bottom Line

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Guy Moshe's “Bunraku” is like a sumptuous banquet in which every course is dessert -- in other words, too much of a good thing. Intriguing in its design and eye-popping with its fight choreography, this cartoonish film aspires to Hong Kong martial arts by way of spaghetti westerns, video games and samurai films.

Moshe, who wrote and directed, creates a boldly Expressionistic alternate reality to background this heavy-on-the-action story, but neglects narrative and character beyond the most basic strokes.

“Bunraku” will strike a cord with some martial-arts fans while others may dismiss it as gimmicky. The movie certainly fails to engage cineastes open to new worlds but wanting a bit of substance to boot. More festival exposure could build world-of-mouth and the presence of known American actors will help.

The world of the movie is one without guns but with every other imaginable weapon for hand-to-hand combat. Sets and the surrounding environment achieve an arresting video-game look while costumes, makeup and photography neatly create comic-book imagery.

A stranger comes to a town ruled by a tyrant. No, wait, make that two strangers, something of a violation of genre rules but how else to shoehorn a western drifter (Josh Hartnett) and a samurai (Asian pop star/actor Gackt) into the same movie?

The town is ruled by Nicola (Ron Perlman), who is protected by nine assassins, with Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd) being the nastiest. Then two heroes roll into town. At first, they fight each other. Then they team up to fight the cops, a bunch of guys in red, and finally, the nine killers.

In this town, you have to fight just to get a drink. Running the saloon is the bartender (Woody Harrelson in a role that does not remind you of his “Cheers”character). He encourages the protagonists and will eventually wind up in the fight himself.

The samurai has an uncle who runs a sushi joint along with a cute cousin (Emily Kaiho). Their conversations in Japanese wind up as subtitles placed in comic-book balloons on the screen -- another clever visual device.

The actors deliver line with straight faces and participate in fights with what looks like enthusiasm. Indeed all the action is spirited, well staged and even unusual at times such as a fight in a circus grounds that goes from the high wire to a bouncing net. Car and motorcycle chases with scenery breezing by in the background, egged on by percussion-heavy music, further the circus-like atmosphere.

But it's a three-ring circus with little interest in its characters. Everyone is a type, nothing more. And with every other scene calling out the stuntmen for more dances with knives, even the action ultimately grows tiresome.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production companies: Snoot Entertainment presents a Picturesque Films/Ram Bergman production
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, Gackt, Kevin McKidd, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore, Jordi Molla, Emily Kaiho
Director/screenwriter: Guy Moshe
Producers: Keith Calder, Jessica Wu, Nava Levin, Ram Bergman
Executive producer: David Matalon
Director of photography: Juan Ruiz-Anchia
Production designer: Chris Farmer
Stunt coordinator: Clayton Barber
Music: Terence Blanchard
Costume designer: Donna Zakowska
Editors: Zach Staenberg, Glenn Garland
Sales: IM Global
No rating, 124 minutes