I had been waiting for this film for some time. As a fan of GACKT, I had heard about this film from his fan-base, and was pleasantly surprised when I also read about the inclusion of Woody Harrelson and Ron Perlman.
Today, I was finally able to see the film, and was startled to see that it was everything I had expected.
The film is decidedly strange, with vivid backdrops reminiscent of the Japanese puppet theater from which it is named. The papery textures are somehow rich and colorful, yet feel as natural as the real world after a short time watching. However, this is more than a paper cut-out world- it has strong elements of impressionism and film noir, with a healthy dash of old-school Western lying on top.
The fight scenes are quite spectacular. They are wonderfully choreographed, and the actors all play their parts in them quite naturally, with distinct styles. GACKT has some background in martial arts, and it is easy to see as he fights- he has a certain grace and precision, while Hartnett is a brawling powerhouse of Western dime novels.
In terms of acting, I was impressed. I was expecting GACKT especially to be awkward, considering his stage personas in music have been very over-the-top and theatrical (not only as a solo act, where he portrays himself as a vampire, but in his past project Malice Mizer where he was known to dress as a woman in true "Visual Kei" style), but in this he was relatively understated, with only a few small distracting moments. His eyes do seem to be a sore point in this- either he is squinting or staring wide-eyed at everything around him. At first it is distracting, but after some time it becomes easier to ignore as one of Yoshi's personality traits and not the actor's. His English is very good, much improved from his earlier film, Moon Child, where it was barely recognizable.
Josh Hartnett, not usually a favorite of mine, seems to have found his calling. His wanderer character seems to fit him like a glove, and the obvious delight he takes in his cigarettes feels very natural and not as contrived as it could with another actor. His secretive, quiet demeanor does not feel forced, and he seems entirely comfortable in the role of Western hero.
Ron Perlman is just excellent as always. His portrayal of the enigmatic Woodcutter gives the clichéd "bad guy" a new life, with complexities under simple evil. His self-destructive and somehow magnetic personality is engrossing, and he never for a moment feels fake, even when delivering lines that would seem overdone with another actor. Perlman's natural gift of lending weight to his words is no less spectacular here.
And of course, Woody Harrelson. Ah, Woody. He plays his witty bartender with a mysterious past with such charisma that it is hard to believe he isn't real. He has a dry humor, which you can catch from time to time in random, wry smiles. He positively glows in every scene. Even when there are fights going on all around him, he remains the center of attention, for good reason. Woody Harrelson gets better with every project he does.
Demi Moore has a part in this, but she is out of her element and feels forced. She comes across as an angsty yet uninteresting character. If she had been flashed out, her circumstances could have been a selling point, but there simply wasn't enough. Hers was a character that was unnecessary, and a waste of Demi's talent.
In terms of plot, this is nothing unusual. It is a reinvention and blending of so many genres that it is barely its own entity, yet somehow it does it in a fresh way that feels familiar, but not stale.
The last point I will make has to do with run time. This is a long film, with many little subplots. Some of these subplots could have been cut entirely, such as the Alexandra (Demi Moore) story, and some of the fleshing out of the "Killers", who never seem to have more than five minutes of screen time anyway, aside from the fascinating and well- played Number 2. I truly believe that this movie should have been cleaned up and condensed, removing approximately twenty to thirty minutes of unneeded dialogue, to make it more tolerable to a wider audience. Some people would certainly get bored or frustrated with some of the needless time.
Overall, this film is a great watch. If you are a film buff, you'll find lots of fun little references and jokes. There is something here for everyone if you give it a fair chance.
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