Now available on VOD services like Prime Video, Bullet Train is an actionstravaganza from David Leitch, director of Deadpool 2, a Fast and Furious spinoff, Atomic Blonde and, I dunno, approximately half of John Wick? He’s established himself as an action director of note, here adapting Kotaro Isaka’s novel with Brad Pitt leading a kind of mini-mega-cast that includes Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and a few other surprise names that I daren’t reveal (one of whom I’m convinced is just their face CGI-pasted in). All this was enough to make it a $230 million international box office mini-mega-hit – and a halfway-decent two hours of ridiculously convoluted plot tangles and live-action-cartoonish escapism.
The Gist: I don’t even want to get into why all these crazy/angry/violent/witty characters are on the superfast bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, so let’s just say the plot put them there for the sake of our amusement. Oh, and one of them is a boomslang, which if you don’t already know, is a snake whose venom can make you bleed internally until you die. Although Brad Pitt is a very good actor, he does not play the boomslang – rather, an assassin dubbed Ladybug, who’s trying to mentally reform himself after many years of killing people, and always going on about the touchy-feely stuff he learned in therapy. He takes the job of whatever it is, it’s not important, because it’s a total 100 percent unapologetic MacGuffin chase, but he takes the job reluctantly from his handler Maria, who we don’t see and only hear on the other end of the phone, and I suggest figuring out who plays the voice before you get too distracted from all the flashbacks and cutaways and imbroglios. Not that you can’t gloss right on by the myriad ins and outs of the story and still enjoy the movie. You can. Absolutely.
So we’ve got Ladybug. And Kimura (Andrew Koji), who isn’t an assassin but is following a vengeful path that’ll lead him there. The actual assassins are as follows: A shrewd young conniver known as the Prince (King), who plays up her innocent-young-girl image as part of her subterfuge. A pair of bickering British brothers known as Lemon (Henry) and Tangerine (Taylor-Johnson), the former obsessed with the variety of life-metaphors and character types he learned from Thomas the Tank Engine, and the latter a near-carbon-copy of Begbie from Trainspotting. A gent with face tats who’s only known as the Son (Logan Lerman), because he’s the offspring of a Russian gangster known as the White Death ([REDACTED]). And a Mexican assassin known as the Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny), who feels kind of extraneous, but he dies pretty early so his corpse can be used for slapstick gags.
I know, a lot of people in this movie are “known as” things, because we never learn their real names. (There are a few more known-as-ers, but they’ll remain [REDACTED] lest the spoiler cops pitch me face-first into the gulag.) That’s intentional. Real names would make them more realistic, and nobody’s trying to make anything in this movie realistic. It’s all snark and irreverent deconstructionism of genre and character tropes – and how! The assassins all get into hilariously violent scuffles in snack lounges staffed by cheery women with wasabi munchies and in quiet cars with old ladies shushing them as they try to pummel each other’s faces, stuff like that, and the ones who don’t end up bleeding until they cease living form divisions and alliances that shift and intertwine. Eventually they need to figure out why this train is so heavily populated with cold-blooded damn killers. There are reasons, and I’m not here to reveal them in detail, but to tell you that they don’t matter in the slightest.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: This movie finds Leitch drafting on the brutal mockery of his own Deadpool outing, and beats us over the head with its obvious Tarantino (especially Kill Bill) and Guy Ritchie (Pitt-starrer Snatch) influences. But spiritually, it’s like recent fluff-adventure The Lost City in its old-fashioned entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake appeal.
Performance Worth Watching: Pitt sure appears to be enjoying himself, toying with the Pitt Persona, lightly butting his head on the meta-wall so he won’t break it, expertly hitting his comedy marks, smiling with genial charisma and never smirking like an odious cretin. If you don’t find it endearing like I did, it’ll probably drive you nuts.
Memorable Dialogue: Ladybug, weary from the physical exertion/beatings he’s endured: “Man, fate for me is just another word for bad luck. And that follows me around like… I dunno, something witty.”
Sex and Skin: A very brief long shot of a scandalous adulterous act.
Our Take: To be fair, Bullet Train’s many fragmented shards of flashbacks and cutaways and intros and outros and insidetros do eventually come together to form a complete story, which shows us that Leitch cares (more than some directors of junk-food entertainment, anyway). Following it all may test your patience, because there are moments where the train is literally barreling forward and suddenly we’re slapped with a neon-pink title card screaming 26 YEARS EARLIER and we’re at a wedding in Mexico or whatever. It’s a style that’s worn out its welcome for some, who’ll insist it falls on the wrong side of the line between clever and obnoxious.
I hear that beef. It took the film an hour before it broke through my barrier o’ misanthropy and made me laugh in spite of myself, at Leitch’s expert means of turning action-violence into slapstick, and at sly digs at Japanese pop culture, but mostly at Pitt delivering psychobabble like Schwarzenegger used to deliver groan-worthy one-liners: “Let this be a lesson in the toxicity of anger,” Ladybug quips, or, “Hurt people hurt people.” It leavens some of the dated, very ’90s-esque mean-spiritedness here; this is the type of movie that spends 10 minutes giving us some guy’s sad backstory and then kills him a scene or two later and turns his body into a comedy prop.
But that’s fate and luck and chance and karma at play, as Ladybug keeps pointing out, seemingly aware that he’s the movie’s self-critical streak, since it uses fate and luck and chance and karma as excuses to blindside us with a bitey snake or hidden explosive. The deus ex machina is very much a character in Bullet Train, and it knows it, and Ladybug is its spokesperson. Is the movie trying to say something here? Something about the cruel, farcical hand of fate? Nah. But it is trying to say something: Shut up and enjoy this.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Bullet Train is more fun than folly, and even then, its folly can be fun.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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