Bullet Train is billed as an action comedy where a down-on-his-luck hitman boards a train filled with fellow assassins whose missions are somehow interconnected. It looks like something out of a violent graphic novel, but it’s actually based on Kotoro Isaka’s Japanese best-selling novel with Japanese characters. When Hollywood bought the rights, of course the characters are no longer Asian-led, with Brad Pitt as the protagonist and only a couple of Japanese actors in supporting roles. One thing the movie is faithful to the novel is the comedic tone which I think works here given the level of absurdity of its hyper-violent shenanigans.
Pitt seems to be having the time of his life playing a washed-up hitman dressed like a street bum (which is played for laughs in the movie). Sarcastically nicknamed Ladybug by his handler (Sandra Bullock) given his string of bad luck, he now aims to live a more zen lifestyle, he even has a new mantra ‘if you put peace out in the world, you get peace back.’ Little did he know that his seemingly foolproof mission to retrieve a briefcase aboard the world’s fastest train ends up being anything but peaceful.
I suppose one ought to know what to expect going into a David Leitch movie. The former stuntman (who had been Pitt’s as well as Matt Damon’s stunt double) and half of the directing duo who brought the John Wick franchise is undoubtedly obsessed with frenetic action, fight scenes and chaotic destructions. All of his previous movies, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw, are known for more high-octane actions and less about the plot. The script by Zak Olkewicz overcomplicates things, but it clearly can’t hide its glibness and frivolity. I have to say Bullet Train might be the most ‘talkative’ of Leitch movies, thanks to the constant banter between two ‘brothers’ Tangerine and Lemon, played with glee by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry. Their heavy cockney accent are a bit tough to discern, but the two actors have fun, playful chemistry to make it watchable. I’d say these two + Pitt’s Ladybug are the movie’s MVPs and their interactions made for some of the funniest bits.
I’m not at all a fan of Joey King after having the unlucky time watching The Kissing Booth (which I couldn’t muster to finish). Here she plays a ruthless assassin dressed like a schoolgirl with a British accent, which reminds me of a character out of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. She’s supposed to be menacing as she has no qualms hurting a child, but she comes across as annoying. The rest of the contract killers with animal nicknames are basically extended cameos in Leitch’s hyper-stylistic fights, Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny is Wolf and Zazie Beetz is The Hornet. Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji are relegated to clichéd Japanese characters who are all about honor and family. Hollywood just can’t think outside the box when it comes to casting Asian talents, even someone as brilliant as Sanada. As for the cameos, let’s just say there’s The Lost City reunion as well as one of the stars from one of Leitch’s biggest hit movies.
The director clearly cares way more about the heightened action scenes than he ever does about characters, but even so, there’s more blood and gore on display than actual cool fight scenes that stick with you. Interesting that Leitch was Damon’s stunt double in one of the Bourne films which utilize far fewer fight scenes but are actually memorable and suspenseful. Here the bloody violence is deliberately cartoonish and played for laughs. Things happen in a blur that I could barely remember or care just why any of them is on the train in the first place. It’s saying something when characters like Deadpool and even John Wick seemingly have more depth and purpose than these assassins put together. The cinematography by Jonathan Sela looks stunning, especially early on in the neon-tinged Tokyo, but it’s hard to appreciate the visuals during such a frenetic pace of constant motion.
I’m not saying the movie is devoid of fun and style, it certainly has those qualities, but it would’ve been much more palatable in 90 minutes or less. Brad Pitt is entertaining and clearly revels in comedic roles. His enthusiastic energy is infectious but even his aw-shucks charm can’t save a movie that’s proud of being utterly risible. All that manic energy was fun at first but it can’t sustain a 2-hour+ movie. By the time the train hurtles down in mind-numbing speed all the way to its CGI-powered finish, all logic has been blown to smithereens. It’s made worse when the final twist is so pedestrian, which proves that in big-budget tentpole movies, it is creativity that dies a thousand deaths.
Have you seen Bullet Train? What did YOU think?