Review: “Bullet Train”

The Shinkansen, or bullet train, is a network of railway lines in Japan that connect areas across the country to Tokyo, and can reach operating speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. The pacing of the movie “Bullet Train,” set on one of these commuter trains, is about as fast, but far less focused. The film is based on a book by Kōtarō Isaka and directed by David Leitch, a former stunt performer who made his uncredited directorial debut co-directing the first “John Wick” movie, and has since helmed a series of ultra-violent action films made in the same vein, including “Atomic Blonde” and “Nobody.” “Bullet Train,” while it sure is violent (occasionally queasily so), takes on a much more light-hearted tone—with mixed results.

Brad Pitt stars as an assassin working under the codename “Ladybug,” a name ironically designated to him by his handler due to his previous unlucky streak. From a phone conversation he has with her while walking the neon-soaked streets of Tokyo, we glean that this is his first job back after a hiatus, where he worked on improving himself and gaining a more positive outlook on life. Ladybug’s mission should be simple: recover a briefcase that is stashed somewhere on the bullet train. But as we see in a series of vignettes of other characters the film frequently cuts to, Ladybug is not the only trained killer on this train. Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), an assassin known as The Father, has been summoned on the train by The Prince (Joey King), who pushed his young son off a roof in order to wrangle him into killing the White Death (Michael Shannon), the head of a very large and very dangerous crime syndicate. Also on the train are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), a pair of hitmen hired by the White Death to recover his son (a virtually unrecognizable Logan Lerman) and the briefcase.

Brad Pitt as Ladybug in “Bullet Train”

“Bullet Train” takes its time actually connecting all these seemingly disparate narratives, and when it finally does, it feels more unnecessarily convoluted than satisfying. And while the film is pretty tonally consistent throughout—hectic and harsh blows peppered with light banter and irreverent humor—the success of each scene is largely dependent on which characters are involved. Pitt is no stranger to neither action nor comedy, but his roles in recent years have spun his image as an attractive leading man a little different. In “The Lost City” earlier this year, he played a parody of the ideal male action hero. In “Bullet Train,” he is the hero, and he gets to participate in a lot of fight choreography (reportedly doing the majority of his own stunts), but his character is also kind of a dork. Donning thick glasses, a bucket hat, and a peaceful demeanor, he isn’t the typical leading man, and as the least unhinged character in the entire movie by a long shot, it’s fun to watch him interact with all the colorful personalities he encounters on the train. But there are also long stretches where Pitt isn’t on screen, and a lot of these scenes are borderline insufferable. King is doing a lot, to put it nicely, as a cold killer masquerading as an innocent schoolgirl who can dissolve into a puddle of tears on cue. Zazie Beetz is barely in the movie as another assassin known as The Hornet and still manages to deliver an all-time terrible performance, although it isn’t her fault that virtually the only dialogue her character is given is spitting out “bitch” every couple of words. Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny) also briefly appears as a vengeance-seeking assassin called The Wolf. Johnson and Henry eventually establish a solid dynamic while also shining in the film independently of each other, and the journey their characters take ends up in a surprisingly emotional and heart-rending place for a film that is otherwise virtually devoid of any sincerity, but even their back-and-fourths drag on for too long and render most attempts at wit limp. Not to mention that the majority of the cast dons horrendously exaggerated English accents for some reason. This may be a good place to mention that the film retains the novel’s Japanese setting while whitewashing the majority of the characters. It should be noted that author Isaka has defended the film’s casting and claimed that the characters in his book are “ethnically malleable,” but it’s a troubling choice considering Hollywood’s track record of not supporting Asian-led movies and the long-held belief that Asian films can’t be big box office draws. And as the only Black actor in the main cast, Henry is frequently poorly lit compared to his costars.

Brian Tyree Henry as Lemon in “Bullet Train”

At any rate, the humor throughout the film is largely hit or miss. There are some cameos sprinkled throughout the movie that are clearly meant to elicit a reaction from the audience solely by virtue of the performer involved, not by their actual role in the movie (that’s not to say that I wasn’t delighted by at least one of them). But when it lands it lands, due in large part to the actors (namely Pitt, Johnson, and Henry, who all have impeccable timing) and the increasing absurdity of the narrative, which continues to throw odd wrenches into the characters’ schemes, and the action. Do I believe that Tangerine was able to leap onto the outside of a speeding bullet train and hang on long enough to break through a window to get inside? Absolutely not, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. While this approach to the action scenes, in which certain characters appear almost invincible, lowers the stakes somewhat, the action—largely comprised of hand-to-hand combat sequences—is still entertaining, thanks in large part to the cramped confines of the train cars where the majority of the movie takes place. Like all good train movies, “Bullet Train” takes advantage of its setting, which tosses all manner of individuals inside one small space, to increase tension, particularly as Ladybug is constantly trying to get off the train at each stop, but each stop only lasts for one minute. The climax, however, in which the train literally runs off the rails, loses some credibly thanks to some overblown and not especially convincing CG effects.

“Bullet Train” is a stylishly mounted, fast-paced action thriller that entertains even though it eventually runs out of steam thanks to an overlong runtime, and if it feels especially refreshing, it’s probably because it isn’t like any of this summer’s other new blockbusters. But if there’s a predictable form to the dark and gritty thriller, there’s also one to the post-“Deadpool” action comedy, a cocktail of jokes and gore that are stirred up with little thought to how they are serving the characters or the story. There are flashes of deeper emotional beats, but as distinct as the characters in “Bullet Train” are, their real feelings and motivations are glossed over in favor of outward flash and bravado, with little of substance actually propping them up.

“Bullet Train” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated R.

One thought on “Review: “Bullet Train”

  1. Terrific review, Katie. I absolutely loved this one, but a lot of it had to do with how refreshingly different the movie is from everything else (which you touched on in your review). I’m surprised at the low Rotten Tomatoes score.

    Liked by 1 person

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