By Nathanael Griffis
I’m a sucker for Kung-fu action films. It doesn’t matter how many times someone pummels a sneering bad guy in the face I’m there. Add cowboys to the mix and it should be good, except that last time cowboys and ninja’s got together we were given The Warriors Way, so I feel like a guy who keeps going back to the same destructive girlfriend saying ‘It’ll be different this time’. It’ll be different actors perhaps, but will that equate to enough action to satisfy my face-pummel thirst.
Poster & Trailer: This is strange, normally there’s at least two or three alternative designs for posters, but this nope just the one choice. I’m digging pretty deep here to and there’s nothing really besides the plain design. The recipe goes like so: show your stars in a perfect billing phalanx, emblazen the title in Caps beneath, insert action pose from star and Asian star, smother in blue. The boring poster proves worrisome, because the trailer boasts some engaging color palletes and strange paper art designs. After watching it I gather Ron Perlman is the bad guy. Josh Hartnett is a cowboy, Woody Harrelson is a bar tender. Demi Moore is pretty and there are two people I don’t know in it, but the movie is insisting I must. Gackt and Kevin McKidd are supposedly names of actors, but I’m still not convinced. The screenshots bring a little hope. The set’s look cool and like they’re constantly changing, so hopefully it’ll be pretty.
The Critics: 6.1 on IMDB and 16% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m confused. That discrepancy is only furthering my concern. People on IMDB can be weird, but there we very few reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and they can sometimes be pretentious. In other news, while searching I discovered that Bunraku is actually a form of Japanese puppet theater. I then got lost in a Wikipedia article on Japanese puppet theater and lost track of what the critics said, so that should tell you something. It tells you I have a general disdain for critics opinions. Yet serving as a critic myself, I’m at a loss recognizing the meta-critique I’m doing and expostulating on how boring critiques are I’ve tumbled into some philosophical condrum. What could possibly save me from all this thinking.
Sum Up: Face’s getting smashed that’s what. I need to see heads get chopped off, knees shattered, men thrown through walls, all manner of liquer bottles explode, chairs snapped like twigs and bad guys flying across the screen while screaming long extended vowel sounds. Yes that’s what I need to pull me out of my slump. Bunraku has a lot riding on it. If it fails, I’ll be left to ponder my ever disintegrating mental constitution. If it succeeds and entertains, I can continue on in my self-imposed wonderland, where people read what I write and care enough to make it worth writing.
The film opens with a Baz Lurhman freneticism that’s annoying in Baz Lurhman movies. To boot I think they went out and got the world’s worst movie-trailer-guy-impersonator to do the narration. The scratchy voice would sound more comfortable pouring out short little drawls like “In a world with no guns…”. Instead, the cigarette burned voice spews out the entire plot, which is extremely unfortunate, because the title sequence is stunning. The best thing about this film is the art direction, the sets, lighting, and transitions are worth studying. The way the story stays true to traditional Bunraku theater is impressive.
It frequently looks made of paper and focuses on hard lined geometric shapes that make it look like the sets where literally folded into place and the transitions between scenes would have us believe such. Guy Moshe’s (the director) use of lighting is stunning as well. He has an amazing sense of color and uses shadow to an exceptional effect. A fight between Harnett’s Drifter and Gackt’s Yoshe is almost completely stationary except moving shadows that give the appearance of a greater motion. The fight scenes are more akin to dances than brutal body count raising action. This was a pleasant surprise, but it didn’t feed my desire for sheer entertainment.
Here in lies the conundrum, from a film I expected little to no substance of story I got a touch more. There are some lines and plot moments that are well placed and give the story an edge. At other times the use of vulgarity intermixed with poetic dialogue is deliberately distracting. It’s as if the director will not allow his film to be taken seriously, which troubles me. I can’t decide if I like that or not. The characters are archetypes, yet small flaws and weakness give them just a touch of depth. So I was pleased with the story to be honest, but that’s not what I turned to Bunraku for.
I wanted to see faces smashed and pummeled. I got that to some extent, but like I mentioned earlier the fights are more like dances than fights. They don’t get your blood pumping as much as they widen your eyes in an attempt to dazzle you. The opening fight is a let down, but sets the tone and by the end I was engaged, which is a credit to the film. Still I didn’t enjoy the first half of the film, because the action wasn’t entertaining enough. There are at least 15 fights in this movie and maybe 5 are worthwhile, but all 15 are beautifully staged with bizarre touches, Kevin McKidd as an Irish samurai being one of the strangest. It’s simply just a hard thing to buy a man with a thick Irish accent, a burgundy fedora, a dappled kerchief, goldenrod slicked back hair, a grey and lavender three piece suit, and plum set of glasses as a threatening master of bushido.
The rest of the cast is fine. Demi Moore supports nicely giving those around her motivation and stronger characters as a supporting actor should do. Hartnett is a convincing gruff drift. Gackt a good samurai. I’d buy a drink from Woody Harrelson anytime. And, give Ron Perlmen and axe, dreadlocks, and a beard and he’s a force to be reckoned with sure. It’s all these strengths and weakness that bother me though. I find myself on the seat of some horrible film lovers struggle. There really is this Yin and Yang of film, with entertainment & art both working against and betwixt each other.
With the end of each fight scene, and the sudden arrival of a transition that lifts us up from a city square to rising paper buildings that collapse as quickly as they were built to reveal the next scene, I would be both intrigued and disappointed. I had wanted some snarky comment to finish it off. I’d wanted to see more blood. More bad guys being pummeled, instead my critics palette had been fed with colors that washed over the story. The action becomes symbolic for the struggle within one’s self and good vs. evil in life, much like the simple stories of Bunraku theater itself. The sets are wonderfully built and amazingly utilized. The film refused in some ways to stay within a discernible genre, which is both praiseworthy and immensely frustrating at the same time.
Overall it’s worthwhile checking out and I mean that literally I don’t think you can simply watch this film. It is a feast visually for the eyes, but not action wise. It simply sports some of the best uses of light and color I’ve seen in a long time.
Our expectations, may not have as much influence as I’ve thought. My expectations met or unmet didn’t change my feelings. Before the film I was in some silly overstated turmoil trying to work out the dichotomy of entertainment and critique. After I had watched the film that lens remained and I was stuck within those boundaries. My expectations don’t actually affect the film. They limit how I can interpret the film. How I can asses or enjoy something, and if something can be assessed for enjoyment. Going into a film without any expectations may give you a more honest sense of the film, perhaps. But the broader sense created by no expectations may also lead to an inability to describe it. If I hadn’t been struggling between entertainment and critique, I would simple have mentioned what was good and what was bad. I would have presented you with little more than a summary of what happened, returning to the dreaded book report of 4th grade. Expectations provide a guiding lens that is necessary to engaging with film and that films demand of us. They may ruin a film entirely for us or, in some rare cases, provide a chance for us to dig deep into some unheard story and drag something revelatory out.
They may also provide a chance for some person with extra hours on a Saturday to type up extra words in an attempt to sound smart. Either way, I’ll be changing around that format for my upcoming expectations articles. I think it’s time we brought in a control. Up until now I’ve been testing the variables of my own expectations. It’s time I compared them to a viewer who has no expectations.