Bunraku’s premise involves a level of fanboy wankery that makes Sucker Punch look restrained. The film, written and directed by Guy Moshe (of 2006’s child-trafficking drama Holly), is set in a post-nuclear-war world in which guns have been banned and all of civilization’s still-copious violence is carried out with swords, fists, and the occasional axe. The city in which the action takes place is oppressed by a vicious gang led by a dreadlocked Ron Perlman, “the most powerful man east of the Atlantic.” Among his underlings: nine assassins who must challenge each other to move up in ranking, like clarinetists battling for first chair in a school orchestra.
Into this tense situation wander a cowboyish drifter (Josh Hartnett) and a samurai (Japanese pop star Gackt), both of whom have their reasons for wanting to take Perlman down. They’re united by a wise bartender (Woody Harrelson) who offers snippets of wisdom between pouring drinks and driving a getaway car, and they face down toughs resembling Russian gangsters, refugees from The Crow, and a bespoke-suited Scotsman (Kevin McKidd) on their way to freeing the town, or enacting their revenge, or something. With this much ridiculousness, Bunraku should be an indulgently fun time, but instead it’s a disappointing drag, a genre mash-up thesis film throughout which a smug voiceover drawls things like “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth will forever make better grammatical balance than turning the other cheek.”
The film does have visual panache: Bunraku is a kind of traditional Japanese puppetry, and everything takes place on theater-inspired sets that recall a mix between the fantastical green-screened backdrops of Sin City and the comic-book-influenced look of Dick Tracy. This deliberate artificiality, which sometimes breaks into graphical panels, softens the heightened quality of the characters and dialogue, but doesn’t make them any easier to latch onto. In spite of a few clever segments—a fight scene that proceeds down the levels of a building like a videogame, a pop-up book explaining a story that turns out to be a mythologized version of Spider-Man, a battle on a trampoline—Bunraku comes up frustratingly empty, and just as many of its elements simply bloat an overlong run time. (Demi Moore shows up seemingly to give the film more than one female speaking part.) It looks good, but Bunraku feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of references that someone failed to animate.