Starring: Brad Pitt (Ocean’s Eleven), Joey King (White House Down), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Brian Tyree Henry (Eternals), Andrew Koji (Snakes Eyes: GI Joe Origins), Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat), Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (F9), Sandra Bullock (The Lost City), Zazie Beetz (Joker)
Director: David Leitch (Deadpool 2)
Writer: Zak Olekewicz (Fear Street: Part Two – 1978)
Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes
Release Date: 3rd August (UK), 5th August (US)
Synopsis: When beleaguered hitman Ladybug is tasked with the job of stealing a briefcase aboard a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, he finds himself caught amongst a web of other assassins all aboard the train for their own reasons.
David Leitch has managed to make quite a name for himself in the action world over the last few years. After years of stunt work and second unit directing with longtime collaborator Chad Stahelski, the pair worked together to direct the first John Wick and helped redefine the standard of what an American action movie should aspire to. Whilst Stahelski opted to stay and sheperd Mr. Wick further, Leitch stepped out on his own and directed a string of increasingly madcap actioners: from grounded spy thriller Atomic Blonde, to superhero sequel bonanza Deadpool 2, to the unmitigated insanity that is Hobbs & Shaw. But now, much in the way Stahelski was once Keanu Reeves’ stunt double and now directs him, Leitch is returning the favour to the star he used to be an alternate for: Brad Pitt. The result is Bullet Train, an action-comedy that sticks every facet of Leitch’s career so far into a blender for a bloody fun movie, if not always an original or coherent one.
There are two ways to sum up Bullet Train, and here’s my favourite of the two: what would happen if a bunch of different characters from different styles of action movies were all stuck on a train together? You’ve got the beleaguered assassin who wants out of the game, two British goons who’ve walked right out of a Guy Ritchie movie, a Robert Rodriguez-like Latino badass, a few Yakuza types, some Russian gangsters, and even a young woman who’s basically a mix of Mathilda from Léon and Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass. The whole plot is basically just an excuse to get all these disparate characters in one location, bouncing quips and fists off each other until they reach their final destination. There’s a fair amount of world-building as we explore character backstories, but there’s not a huge amount of depth to it and I wouldn’t be surprised if many audiences completely lose sight of the bigger picture. In a lot of ways though, it ultimately doesn’t matter, as the filmmakers are clearly more concerned about the moment-to-moment fun rather than some great overall narrative, and on that level Bullet Train succeeds.
The film is as much as a comedy as it is an action movie, and probably one of the funnier hybrids this side of Deadpool. Some of the targets of their jabs at Japanese culture like “they love mascots” and “their toilets are complicated” seem obvious, and there’s a running gag about Thomas the Tank Engine that gets way overplayed, but they always manage to eventually subvert expectations and turn these into hilarious or even poignant moments. It’s a really odd experience to watch a movie that, on a scene-by-scene basis, has some really clever and witty writing, but as a whole feels like a bit of a disparate mess. The only thing keep the whole enterprise cohesive is this common theme of luck and fate that characters constantly make reference to, and whilst the film tries to pass this off as some message about looking on the bright side and how life always finds a way, it’s more plainly obvious it’s a writing tool to explain how so many coincidences line up to get every character onto that train in the first place. Which brings me back to my second quick way to sum up Bullet Train: it’s Murder on the Orient Express, but if every suspect was a John Wick character. Apt not just because of the setting and structure, but because both are about as equally convoluted and ridiculous.
In any film with a large cast of colourful characters, it’s an easy mistake to focus on and fall in love with a select few whilst the rest feel like afterthoughts, and Bullet Train does a solid enough job of giving everyone just enough time to shine and make an impact, even those who only pop in for a scene or two. Though Brad Pitt may be the big name on the poster and who we are introduced to this world through, there’s really three main storylines afoot here that criss-cross between each other before finally coalescing in the third act. Pitt himself is as charming as you’d expect as our lead Ladybug, but he’s also not afraid to play the fool. Both the character’s anxiety about going back on the job and his running bad luck are the backbone of his comedy, and Pitt sells these as well as his punches.
The real highlights are Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson at the aformentioned Ritchie types Lemon and Tangerine, with their constant bickering but undying loyalty to each other making for a compelling double act (also, Henry really sells the British accent). Joey King, also less successfully donning an English brogue, is solid as a conniving young trickster known as The Prince but her overall motivation and arch is a bit lacking, whereas Andrew Koji ends up drawing a bit of short straw amongst the leads as revenge-driven father Yuichi. Hiroyuki Sanada is here doing what he does best as Yuichi’s disappointed father, and Michael Shannon’s villain shows up quite late to the party after being built up throughout to little payoff. Sandra Bullock spends the vast majority of her time off-screen as Pitt’s mysterious handler, whilst Zazie Beetz and Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (AKA Bad Bunny) pop in as one-scene wonders who threaten to steal the whole show. Though he has little dialogue, Ocasio is an especially strong screen presence and the sequence showing his origins is a fun but brutal Rodriguez tribute in under five minutes all on its own.
With its high-saturation colour grade and frequent use of poppy title cards to introduce characters, Bullet Train is clearly going for an exaggerated, graphic novel-inspired aesthetic, which only adds to the vibe that it’s a film not to take too seriously. The cinematography is fun and vibrant, even if the camera can often feel a little too close for comfort; then again, the claustrophobic tightness of the train location certainly limits distance and maneuverability. The action sequences themselves, as to be expected from someone with a lifetime of experience with stuntwork, are well thought out and just different enough from each other to be memorable. The third act is a bit of an exception, unfortunately. After over an hour of tight-quarters fisticuffs, the finale goes all in on CGI and the film crosses beyond just heightened reality into something more out of a superhero movie (specifically The Wolverine, which was also set in Japan and featured a standout sequence aboard a bullet train). The original music by Dominic Lewis is sadly quite forgettable, but the use of licensed tracks, specifically Japanese covers of classic pop and disco tunes, further adds to the quirky and OTT tone.
Bullet Train is silly and preposterous, but it clearly knows that, and whether you end up enjoying the ride will be down to whether you’re willing to accept its many bumps on the way. Its aesthetic and tonal influences come from all over cinema, from Kill Bill and Takeshi Miike to Sam Raimi and Fast & Furious, but deep down this feels like a throwback to the charisma-led gonzo action movies of the 1990s with a slick modern paint job. This is Con Air, this is Bad Boys, this is Demolition Man. If that’s your kind of thing, know not to expect too much, and ideally don’t pay full price for it, you’ll probably have an enjoyable time.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10