They were only being faithful to the material. That was the mantra I kept repeating all throughout Bayonetta: Bloody Fate, a production so ridiculous there's nothing to do but grin at it and shake one's head and invent drinking games. Here is a film where angel-monsters come out of dimensional doorways and get the holy stuffing beaten up by demons summoned from the heroine's hair — that is, when she's not blowing elephant-sized holes in them with the guns held in her hands and mounted on the heels of her shoes. Against such eye and ear candy, the gods themselves (who make a few cameo appearances here, by the way) labor in vain, especially for fans of the game who most likely are already heading to Amazon.com in another browser tab.
But labor I must, and not because I think Bayonetta is lousy — it's a lot of fun all the way through, at least the first time — but only because it runs into a few of the chronic problems that plague anime adaptations of video games. None of those things will bother either existing fans of the games, or folks who wandered in just to have a good time. But they're still worth talking about as part of the way games get made into anime, or the way anything gets adapted into anything else, for that matter.
Her aim is true
One wise move on the part of the filmmakers is that they have assumed nothing about what the audience knows walking in, and thus supply us with a quick introduction to the Bayonettaverse by way of some gorgeous stained-glass imagery. It's a light-vs.-darkness story, with "witches" and "demons" (dark) on one side and "Lumen Sages" (light) on the other — and a forbidden union between the two producing a child who was banished from all human ken five centuries ago. That child was and is Bayonetta, a statuesque gunslinger lady whose penchant for skintight bareback outfits and a gun in each hand (and one on each foot, too) is only outstripped by her hankering for taking out the copious angels that come for her skin. Some angels these are: those of you who remember Viggo Mortensen's line from The Prophecy about angels being creatures with one wing dipped in blood will be nodding right along.
After an initial orgy (no better word for it, really) of angel-slaying, a story starts to come together in fits and starts, one that tracks most of the major plot points of the game. Journalist Luka Redgrave has been pursuing Bayonetta ever since she allegedly laid waste to his own father, who was in the process of excavating Bayonetta's suspended-animation coffin from its watery grave. The big B could care less about this would-be muckraker; as long as she has guns that do the job, courtesy of her gun-smithing buddy Rodin, and a job to use them for, she's happy. It keeps her from having to confront her rather hazy and conflicted memories of the past, many of which revolve around a religious order that's on the verge of allegedly bringing to life some god name Jubileus, courtesy of masked pontiff-type Father Balder.
Balder's plans involve Bayonetta in some convoluted fashion, and I confess the the movie is less interested in making this stuff coherent or compelling than it is in just making it dazzling. Not that Bayonetta is ever short of ways to aid in having that happen: one scene involves her whipping out a chainsaw that's a good four times her size, and you get no prizes for guessing that she uses it to cleave one of her enemies from top to bottom, Vampire Hunter D-style — although, to D's credit, he was able to do it one stroke, while Bayonetta requires a bit more grunting and tugging to finish the job. (I guess angel meat is more sinewy.)
A number of other key characters also come into the mix to further complicate matters. Jeanne, a white-haired gunslinger, divebombs Bayonetta on her motorcycle while the latter is riding a train, displaying skills that are more than a match for Bayonetta's, and hinting darkly at the unremembered past the two share together. To complicate things even further, Bayonetta ends up with a ward: Cereza, a waify little girl of indeterminate origin who latches onto Bayonetta as her mother and, wuddya know, brings out the maternal instinct from Little Miss Devil-May-Cry. (Princess Jellyfish fans may be amused at how much she resembles Tsukimi, glasses and all.)
A story like this not ending with a through-the-roof-of-the-sky shoot-out would be like a Michael Bay movie concluding with a courtroom scene. In that respect, the movie doesn't disappoint: it gives us a climactic clash of the titans that pairs up former rivals, outfits them not only with Chekhov's Gun but Chekhov's Ammunition, and lets them blow away enemies and audience alike, who are then invited to smoke 'em if they got 'em.
The words "critic-proof" came to mind more than once while typing all this. What, really, is the point in picking nits in a production whose primary function is to provide ludicrous razzle-dazzle by the metric ton? But even a movie this unpretentiously fun can run into shortcomings that I can't just shrug off by referring people back to the source material.
The biggest problem is a curious degree of aimlessless, and sometimes outright inertia, in the storyline. It's not that things don't happen — there's a gunfight almost every ten minutes, just to make sure we're paying attention — but that the things that do happen don't feel like they contribute to the forward momentum of the story as they should. Most of how the plot advances is bound up with the gradual return of Bayonetta's memories, but that progression doesn't so much compel her to do things as it justifies them. The same inertia spreads to the other characters: Luka isn't given a whole lot to do except for tail after Bayonetta, get stuck babysitting for Cereza (although that turns out to be pretty important), and dangle precipitously off the sides of ruined buildings. Balder's big plans don't really seem to come together until the last minute — he spends more time gabbling about them than anything else, really — and so the only really momentous part of the story is what happens between Bayonetta and Jeanne. And even that's not really handled as a story element; it's more of a flashback narrative device, where crucial pieces of Bayonetta's past are demand-paged out to the audience to synthesize the kind of rising story tension that the story itself doesn't produce. There's no sense of Bayonetta being driven to look for these answers — not even after Cereza comes into her life and ostensibly compels her to give a damn about something other than herself — and it makes not only her but the story around her seem all the more inert.
One possible response to all this is to say, let's not kid ourselves. This is, after all, an animated adaptation of a video game, one that features a main character whose primary function is male-gaze eye candy. You can't expect too much. Well, sure, but my point is that even within the context of those reduced expectations they still clearly tried that much less harder. I suspect the creators knew they could get away with not having to do more than they absolutely had to with her or her story because they weren't really obliged to do more than hit a few basic checkmarks — make her look good, chew up the scenery, etc.
If a lot of this criticism seem to center around Bayonetta (the character) and Bayonetta (the franchise) being intended as eye candy for a male audience, it's not because I find a sexualized character automatically offensive. For one, these things exist on a spectrum, and so Bayonetta (or Bayonetta) comes off a good deal less offensive than something like Lollipop Chainsaw, where the main character isn't just sexualized but routinely put into sexual peril as a story device. Nobody even gets so much as to cop a feel on Bayonetta here, but that doesn't prevent the camera (and, by extension, the audience) from leering at her at every opportunity that can be found. (The fact that a woman designed the character, or that women cosplay the character, or some other argument to that effect, doesn't make her immune to being so misused.) But under that, there's the deeper problem of the movie being only diffidently interested in Bayonetta as a character, since almost all the actual characterization that takes place is handled in such an ungainly, clunky way. Even a one-dimensional character can still be made compelling and interesting if you work at it, but the writing and story construction here haven't supported such a thing.
The other problem I have is one I encounter often in adaptations of video games, where certain mechanics of the game are preserved intact but lack much explanation or context. To wit: If Bayonetta can summon demons out of her hair, why does she even bother with guns? I suspect there's a perfectly good game-mechanic explanation for this, one that the D-pad pounders in the audience will assume as second nature, but to everyone else it just comes off as self-indulgent illogic. I don't mind my movies being full of ridiculous things; I mind it when it gets to the point where we're made to feel foolish for worrying or caring. A movie where anything can happens is the same as one where nothing makes any difference.
The one thing I can't fault the production team for — or FUNimation and their localizers — is the way the whole thing has indeed been assembled with loving reverence for both the original material and its audience's enthusiasm for it. Some of that is in the big details, such as the way Hellena Taylor (Bayonetta) and Yuri Lowenthal (Luka) reprised their voice roles from the game; some of it is in the little ones, like the gamer's in-joke involving the names of Luka's many ex-girlfriends. (They also kept what is apparently one of the best lines from the original game, one I cannot repeat in a family publication.) If those are the things you came for, those are the things you'll probably stick around for. Consider yourselves blessed. As for me, I wanted a story, but I had to settle for a 90-minute cutscene.