Working to be a jolt of late Summer fun, Bullet Train has a pretty nifty premise involving a variety of colorful strangers on a train with reasons to kill each other. Make no mistake, this is no Hitchcockian thriller but a dark and occasionally brutal comedy bolstered by an eclectic cast, some crafty fight sequences, and a streak of silliness to assure audiences that this is all a lot of R-rated make-believe. Even while lasting longer than needed, once this train builds up enough momentum, the violent hijinks rarely fail to entertain.
Brad Pitt stars as an American assassin, codename: Ladybug. Some implied history informs us that he’s a seasoned hitman who has run into a lot of bad luck during his time. That said, his supposed misfortunes have managed to keep him alive, which will be of service to him if he wants to make it off a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. While Ladybug is tasked with retrieving a briefcase, as it turns out, several other assassins are all on board with their own motivations as well.
Much of the fun should come from getting to know these various professionals. Chief among them are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), Cockney-accented brothers who bicker plenty and can be pretty vicious if needed. There’s also Joey King as Prince (this film arrives a month after her medieval fights in The Princess), an assassin posing as a schoolgirl. Benito A Martinez Ocasio (aka Bad Bunny) shows up as the Wolf, while Zazie Beetz is onboard as Hornet, both effectively using their brief screentime.
As Bullet Train is mainly about letting these characters loose to get up to various forms of mayhem, sometimes covert and other times more explicitly, adding some level of seriousness is Andrew Koji as “The Father,” a man looking to avenge his son, whose been injured. One of my favorite Japanese actors, Hiroyuki Sanada, also steps in as “The Elder,” who finds a way to bring gravitas and moments of humor to a film steeped in ridiculousness.
While Pitt is obviously the high-profile lead of the film, it quickly becomes apparent that Bullet Train intends to function more as an ensemble piece. Unfortunately, having to contend with so many characters, it takes some time for the film to gather the energy needed to properly bounce back and forth between these various personalities. This is most noticeable in the editing, given the choices to introduce specific scenarios, only to cut away for the sake of checking in on others at inopportune times. The film keeps the plates spinning but skips over some wobbly ones when they could use the attention.
Adapted from a novel by Kotaro Isaka, it’s also hard not to notice how a film like this has pushed Japanese characters largely to the side. With that said, Isaka has washed his hands of this, and I suppose a Hollywood-ized take on making this cast broadly international is enough to focus on this movie’s effort to serve as a series of escalating antics rather than something steeped in culture. Really, while the film has no need for adding thematic heft to its looney series of events, it does have something to say about fate and the paths people choose to take.
Of course, attempting to do more than just entertain would feel like a chore for a film like this, which is why Pitt is given a particular mindset to play into. Not feeling too far from his role as Jerry, the hapless hitman in Gore Verbinski’s 2001 dark comedy, The Mexican, Pitt works to bring good vibes as both his character and seemingly as an actor looking to share the fun he’s having with everyone around him. A casual sort of charisma is not something everyone possesses, and while this may not be the most labor-intensive effort from him, the way he blends therapy-inspired dialogue with his beleaguered action prowess proves quite effective.
In general, director David Leitch (Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2) gets a lot out of the bullet train set to make the film visually engaging throughout. It would have been nice to see the movie be clearer on the number of passengers, who are only present until they aren’t, but the different colors in the multiple train sections and some creatively stylish flashbacks at least allow Bullet Train to mix things up. Also helping to mix things up are the various fights that break out. These moments best arrive in smaller-scale sequences, such as a brawl between Ladybug and Lemon in the quiet car. Designed to maximize laughs as frequently as hits, the innovation achieved in these moments is appreciated.
There’s also something quite admirable about how gleefully R-rated this film is, as it functions in many ways as a live-action cartoon, with characters who frequently swear and lots of blood and body parts that go flying around. Bullet Train features shootings, stabbings, dismemberment, poisonings, and other over-the-top action and is better for it. At a time when so many potential blockbusters shave off their edges, here’s a film that isn’t afraid to get dirty and make the audience laugh while doing it.
Honestly, the lengths this film takes in getting to its extreme places make up for where it’s lacking. At just over two hours, Bullet Train overstays its welcome a bit yet only gets better as it goes along. Still, it does feel like a lot of movie for something that could easily be a tighter 100 minutes. Relics of the past when it comes to certain character types on display will also provoke certain responses, but mileage may vary in how the film chooses to deploy some hip dialogue and subversive archetypes.
This sort of film is fine tossing a lot at the audience and hoping enough of it sticks to provide a good enough time. It recalls a time when cool assassins were all the rage, and even then, the amount of post-Pulp Fiction attempts that came along only led to few successes. Bullet Train isn’t exactly a more novel attempt, but it never tries to feel above it all either. With enough style and humor working in its favor, let alone Pitt not being afraid to look foolish, picking up one ticket to Bullet Train should go over well enough.