Crossing the Streams is a regular column that highlights exciting and enjoyable movies that you can find streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and VOD, providing you with plenty of great movies to add to your queue so you don’t waste time searching for something worthwhile. Typically these movies will be genre-based and geek friendly (though it’s not a requirement to be featured), and a large percentage of them will be independent and lower-budget productions. Chances are you’ve already seen every big-budget, top-tier movie out there; Kyle Dekker aims to bring you great choices beyond the mainstream.
I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) most of my life. I’ve played more settings and systems than I can count, and some of my favorites are the genre-mashing games. You can gather a group of friends and everyone can play whatever they want, with nothing off limits. You roll up your characters and the next thing you know, your cowboy has teamed up with a samurai to fight an axe-wielding crime lord. If you’re like me, you’ll be happy to know there is a movie that does this very thing: for the very first installment of Crossing the Streams, I introduce to you Bunraku, a 2010 film by writer/director Guy Moshe.
Bunraku is a post-apocalyptic, noir, Western, martial-arts action movie. Its art direction looks part comic book, part Western, part traditional Japanese puppet theater—the art form from which the film takes its name—and part video game. It draws you in immediately with a fantastic animated prologue narrated by singer Mike Patton (Fantomas, Faith No More), and that narration continues throughout the film, adding to the pulpy, comic-book feel.
The movie take place in a post-apocalyptic land where World War III has devastated Earth and the surviving civilization has banned all guns to prevent future wars of global scale. Melee weapons have replaced guns, but humanity’s predilection for violence is cyclical and evil has risen again. In Bunraku the evil is the Woodcutter, Nicola (Ron Perlman), a crime boss in charge of the land where the tale takes place.
Nicola rules the land with an iron fist, taking on regular challenges to his rule in battles for power. He is often proxied in these challenges by his right-hand man, Killer No. 2, played by Kevin McKidd. McKidd is wonderful as a cold but ostentatious killer who is both deadly and dapper, a fact showcased from the very beginning of the film. The opening scene is an incredibly exciting and over-the-top battle pitting Killer No. 2 and his Red Army against the People of the Proletariat Defense League. Killer No. 2 and company viciously slay their foes with flair, and Nicola’s supremacy is upheld.
The protagonists of the film are an eclectic trio comprising the Bartender (Woody Harrelson), the Drifter (Josh Hartnett), and Yoshi (Japanese singer/actor Gackt). These misfits are the characters your friends would create in a goofy tabletop RPG. The Drifter (your typical tank and cowboy) is a cunning pugilist and fells enemies in one punch. Yoshi is skilled in martial arts (a samurai and dexterity-based fighter), while the Bartender is filled with advice and motivation (the bard). Yoshi is questing for a stolen medallion from his village (your friend who writes up a detailed but trope-filled back story); the Drifter wants a card game; and the Bartender wants peace in the land. The trio’s goals bring them directly into conflict with Nicola and Killer No. 2, and an inevitable conflict erupts. A string of excessive and completely ridiculous fight scenes are tied together, culminating in the heroes confronting Nicola (grinding out encounters for experience points before you face the boss).
Movies aren’t always required to revolve around a deep and meaningful plot, and Bunraku avoids any semblance of a complicated tale—or a truly unique narrative, for that matter. There is also a small amount of romance provided by Nicola’s concubine Alexandra (Demi Moore). The real fun of this movie lies in its simplicity: a team of good guys takes on a team of bad guys and both look great while doing it.
Bunraku took a beating from critics when it was released to a small number of theaters after its film-festival run. Too many of these reviewers obsessed over what they thought the movie was trying to achieve and faulted it for not reaching their made-up goals for the film. They failed to see its fun and appreciate the outstanding visual experience it is. Very few movies will be as entertaining for your eyes as this one to sit back and enjoy.
Bunraku is tons of fun for anyone who loves great fight choreography and cliché-filled tough-guy dialogue. Don’t think too much about the plot, or the character development, because you won’t get it. After watching this film I have a feeling many of you will want to gather some friends and roll up some tabletop characters to have your own thematic action romp. This is why the movie succeeds—it stirs something in you, even if that something is just a fun night of fighting and questing.