Taking a 180-degree turn from his grittily realistic feature debut, “Holly,” Israeli-born writer-director Guy Moshe serves up “Bunraku,” an action-fantasy that flaunts its conceptual and stylistic artifice in a pulp pastiche best enjoyed by those for whom movies can’t be too much like comicbooks (not graphic novels, which would imply some depth, but commicbooks). It’s a pic that’s akin to a terrarium of plastic flowers — gaudily decorative, but airless and lifeless. While some theatrical exposure is signaled, primary fanboy access will be via home formats.
Title references a traditional Japanese theater form with clearly visible puppeteers. Origami-like puppets and animation illustrate an opening sequence that races though the centuries to suggest violence has always dominated human life; in the aftermath of another world war, guns have been banished, which has simply triggered a revival in more primitive means of arse-kicking.
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The mean streets of one burg are ruled by “the most powerful man east of the Atlantic,” reclusive Nicola, aka the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman with blond dreads). Rival gangs who challenge him are dispatched by his nine top henchmen, top-ranked being icy Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd in bowler hat and rose-colored glasses). Backstory (narrated by Mike Patton) tells that this kind of tale always has a Silent Stranger fatefully arriving from out of town. Or in this case, two of them: Japanese swordsman Yoshi (Nippon pop superstar Gackt), who loses his pacifist penchant fast; and spaghetti Western-styled squinter the Drifter (Josh Hartnett), who’s quite happy to use his speedy mace-like fists. Both have secret scores to settle with Nicola, but will have to fight through his thug gallery first. Getting caught up in that quest are the unflappable Bartender (Woody Harrelson); Yoshi’s uncle (Shun Suguta) and cousin Momoko (Emily Kaiho); plus Alexandra (Demi Moore), a fallen woman not pleased that Nicola has fallen for her.
“Bunraku” quickly turns into one long fight, but the platoon of stunt personnel and wild fight choreography don’t count for much, since the hectic lensing, editing and overall pace tend to blur everything together. Design collaborators similarly throw the book at “Bunraku”; aesthetic elements include everything from silent German Expressionist cinema to samurai movies to “Mad Max”; from comicbook onscreen dialogue (for Japanese speech) to sound effects out of videogames and TV’s camp “Batman.” But instead of coalescing into an alternative world, their efforts become little more than a jumble of borrowed ideas in candy colors.
Obviously, human interest is close to zero, andHartnett, Moore and Gackt (the latter shot and styled so prettily here one may need reminding he’s a dude) aren’t actors prone to lend much humor or nuance to roles stonily conceived as one-dimensional archetypes. Harrelson and Perlman are on hand to provide some eccentric color, which under the circumstances they can do in their sleep.
When it isn’t trading in damp wisecracks or blunt ‘Let’s do this thing”-type action cliches, the script comes up with unactable wisdoms like “Life is temporary. Love is eternal” and “Death has no messengers. It delivers itself.” Shot largely in Romania (even “exteriors” are conspicuously soundstage-bound), the pic is a medium-scale fantasy by current blockbuster standards, but accomplishes everything it sets out to in tech and design terms.
Still, no amount of wrapping can fill “Bunraku’s” empty package, and its delayed status (primary shooting purportedly ended more than two years ago) suggests a salvage effort made in vain.