Brad Pitt's charisma, scene-stealing supporting players and spectacular stunt choreography help this assassins-on-a-train action-comedy mostly prove a blast.
August 04, 2022
Buy the ticket, take the ride, strap in for an onslaught of frenetic locomotive-bound fights: that's high-octane action-comedy Bullet Train on- and off-screen. Set on a shinkansen hurtling from Tokyo to Kyoto, in as stylised a vision of Japan that anyone not named Quentin Tarantino has ever thought of, this neon-lit adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka's 2010 page-turner Maria Beetle couldn't be more onboard with its central concept. That premise isn't snakes on a plane, but rather assassins on a train — plus one snake, one of nature's hitmen, actually. Cramming all those killers onto a single engine sparks mayhem, banter and bodies, not to mention chaotic frays in the quiet car and almost every other space. And when it works, with John Wick and Atomic Blonde's David Leitch steering the show, Tarantino and Guy Ritchie alum Brad Pitt as his main passenger, and a lifetime's worth of references to Thomas the Tank Engine slotted in, Bullet Train is as OTT and entertaining as it overtly wants to be.
It doesn't always completely work, however; every journey, zipping along on a high-speed train or not, has its dips. Still, there are plenty of moving parts trying to keep the movie in motion — and plenty of plot, for better and for worse in both instances. In his second 2022 action-comedy after The Lost City, Pitt plays Ladybug, who is back riding the hired-gun rails after a zen break packed with new-age self-help platitudes. That's what he spouts to his handler (Sandra Bullock, The Unforgivable) by phone, in-between rueing his bad luck, as he tries to carry out what's supposed to be an easy job. All that Ladybug needs to do is take a briefcase, then disembark at the next station. But that piece of luggage is being transported by British assassin double-act Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, The King's Man) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta), as they escort a Russian mobster's son (Logan Lerman, Hunters) home. To up the hitman ante, the shinkansen is also carrying The Prince (Joey King, The Princess) and Kimura (Andrew Koji, Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins), who have their own beef, as well as the revenge-seeking Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny, Fast and Furious 9).
As is always the case whenever anyone asks "are we there yet?" IRL, there's more: more twists and turns to the narrative, more bickering, more familiar names facing each other down, and a mass of flashbacks to events minutes, hours, days and months earlier, most of which make the leap from the page via Zak Olkewicz's (Fear Street: Part Two — 1978) screenplay. Wondering if the scribe and Leitch have seen Kill Bill, or the Pitt-starring Snatch, or the 90s attention-grabbers that were Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as they bring Isaka's novel to the screen is thoroughly pointless. But, after The Gray Man, Bullet Train is the second big, star-studded, midyear action flick that's pieced together from familiar components, only to boast the cast and visual spectacle to carry it off more often than not.
What a treat Pitt is, and has been for more than three decades — because that's how long it's been since Thelma & Louise thrust him to fame. Bullet Train draws upon his Ocean's Eleven brand of chattering, casual, happy-go-lucky charisma, even with Ladybug grappling with an existential crisis over his chosen profession. Pitt is comic, but never reaches Burn After Reading's goofiness. Amid the navel-gazing and bromides, he's still calm, collected and supremely capable at holding his own, but never to a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood extent. Although Leitch doesn't give Pitt his own John Wick or Atomic Blonde, it's as crucial a piece of casting. Neither of those two flicks would be the gems they are without their specific stars, and Bullet Train similarly wouldn't have hit the marks it does without its bucket hat-wearing biggest name and his detailed performance.
While they fill their scenes trading words and blows, the best of Pitt's co-stars inspire the same reaction — including Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat) as a veteran yakuza, Michael Shannon (Nine Perfect Strangers) as a pivotal powerbroker, and Taylor-Johnson and Henry particularly. A visually mismatched pair who quip and sling crosstalk with every breath, the latter duo have cookie-cutter comedic-relief supporting roles on paper, yet bring flair, scene-stealing commitment, and a genuine rapport and weight to their characters. It's thanks to Henry as the blonde-topped Lemon that popular culture's most famous train among pre-schoolers not only plays such a sizeable part, but becomes a life-guiding creed. That's a bit taken directly from the source material and, yes, it could've proven both clunky and cringey on-screen. Bullet Train isn't concise at 126 minutes, and giving its Thomas gags a bit too much steam is just one of its repetitive touches, but that whole gambit would've derailed fast in other hands.
Leitch knows banter, and how to direct it; see also: Deadpool 2. While he also knows how to overdo a winking, nodding, smirking vibe that overflows with references to entertainment elsewhere — see also: Deadpool 2 — Bullet Train never feels like it's merely and smugly laughing at its own jokes. And, although not every gag lands, or even the tone from station to station, it's gleeful about how silly it can skew, as its impressively choreographed and inescapably ridiculous action scenes show. Leitch also knows stunts, given that's where he famously started out. In Fight Club, Spy Game, Ocean's Eleven, Troy and Mr and Mrs Smith, he was Pitt's double. It's little wonder that the dynamic confrontations — which involve everything from that key briefcase, laptops and water bottles through to knives, guns, swords and the snake — bounce across their train-bound setting, and the screen, as vividly lensed by Leitch's regular cinematographer Jonathan Sela (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw).
Bullet Train's highlights gleam and flow, just like the film's sleek look and feel, but even when you're happily strapped in, bumps can bubble through. There's never a moment where it isn't a lot, which it's well aware, although luckily — the audience's, and Ladybug's — it's never having less than a hyperactive, cartoonish blast with everything it throws at the screen. Henry's Atlanta co-star Zazie Beetz, playing another of the feature's killers, deserves a better, more fleshed-out character, and more screentime. The ideas of family, trauma and fate at the story's core are often just scaffolding around the repartee and setpieces. Spotting the picture's influences is as plain to see as Tokyo's twinkling lights, and as blatant as the Japanese covers of 'Stayin' Alive' and 'Holding Out for a Hero' on the soundtrack. Buy the ticket, take the ride, settle into the movie's rhythm, let Pitt be your guide: that's still Bullet Train, though, too.