Review: BULLET TRAIN, Tarantinoesque Thrills Mix With John Wickian Action to Middling, Modest Results
With a generic title like Bullet Train, it’s fair to assume that all or mostly all of the action in film called Bullet Train will either unfold on a said bullet train (Shinkansen) or a bullet train will play a key, possibly essential role in the film before the end credits fade to black.
At least in that regard, stunt-choreographer-turned-action-director David Leitch’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde) latest film doesn’t disappoint, unfolding, minus periodic flashbacks, on a cartoonish, comic-book version of a Tokyo to Kyoto train filled with colorfully named professional assassins, a Sumi briefcase stuffed with American dollars, and Tarantino-by-way-of-Ritchie (and countless other imitators over the last two decades) ultra-violence mixed with mordant black humor.
Bullet Train, though, quickly loses whatever appeal it likely had when Leitch decided to direct Zak Olkewicz’s adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 well-regarded crime-thriller novel, Maria Beetle. Set in a Westernized, neon-drenched version of Japan, Bullet Train centers primarily on a garrulous, self-help-obsessed assassin code-named “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt) by Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), his soft-spoken off-screen handler and de facto therapist, and a superficially easy, back-from-semi-retirement gig, retrieving the aforementioned briefcase from a bullet train between stops, that goes sideways almost immediately.
Before he can get step off the train and deliver the briefcase and its contents to its intended recipients, Ladybug comes face-to-face with the rage-filled Wolf (Bad Bunny, aka Benito A Martínez Ocasio), a bad-to-the-bone Tex-Mex assassin with a murderous grudge against Ladybug (among others). That full frontal experience, in turn, postpones Ladybug’s expected deboarding from the bullet train, forcing Ladybug to improvise as an unseen character throws additional, apparently insurmountable obstacles in his path.
In an ultimately exhausting, draining film overstuffed with contrivance and coincidence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those obstacles take the form of an entire train car filled with Ladybug’s professional rivals, from a bickering Brit duo/foster brothers, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who initially pilfered the cash-stuffed briefcase, to the twenty-something screw-up (Logan Lerman) they’re transporting to a forced reunion with the scion’s disappointed father, dubbed the “White Death,” the cold-blooded, sociopathic, Russian-born leader of one of Japan’s most powerful crime families, and the Hornet (a badly underused Zazie Beetz), an assassin who prefers dispatching her victims via snake venom.
And that’s only the start to Ladybug’s ever-escalating problems that ultimately entangle two other passengers, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), a sullen, grieving father bent on extracting revenge for the attempted murder of his preteen son, and the singularly named Prince (Joey King), a seemingly innocent twenty-something who just might be the embodiment of chaotic evil. Later in the semi-convoluted, over-complicated story, an aged, scarred man identified only as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) in a flashing title card makes an appearance, hops aboard the train to drop hits of sage-like wisdom about fate bringing everyone together for one reason or another. It’s all a bit murky right up until another character answers several, interrelated questions, like why so many assassins boarded the same train and why so many seats were left empty.
Plot wise, Bullet Train isn’t particularly new or original (far from it, actually), depending almost entirely on a top-level cast, including Pitt as a reluctant assassin who’d rather be at a yoga retreat discovering himself than fighting and/or otherwise dispatching his fellow assassins, to elevate threadbare material that leans far too heavily on all of two jokes (Ladybug’s self-help obsession, Lemon’s bizarre fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine as life-text), repeating them ad nauseum and, alas, ad nauseum until a near fatal case of boredom sets in.
Where the repeated stabs at black humor flag, though (i.e., often), Leitch and his collaborators insert periodic, stunt-based set pieces make up for the slack. Leitch’s stunt background results in clean, easily followed, inventive action, copious amounts of blood-letting, slicing, and dicing, and almost enough suspense to carry Bullet Train to the inevitable stand-off between the surviving characters on and off the bullet train of the title.
Bullet Train opens in movie theaters via Sony Pictures Releasing on Friday, August 5.
- David Leitch
- Kôtarô Isaka
- Zak Olkewicz
- Joey King
- Karen Fukuhara
- Brad Pitt