THE BULLET TRAIN — The Film That Inspired SPEED [Blu-ray Review]

The Bullet Train is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000 units.

“Detectives and railway engineers race against time to dismantle a bomb aboard a high-speed express train in the 1975 Japanese cult disaster film that inspired Speed.”

When you put it that way, Bullet Train (Shinkensen Daibakuha) sounds like a thundering blast of 200mph mayhem, but the reality, while good, is not nearly as exciting as that.

As a huge wave of disaster films — and in particular transportation-themed ones like Airport, Skyjacked, and The Poseidon Adventure — flooded the Hollywood landscape, Japan’s Toei Company decided to mimic the formula in a bid to make a global hit. The result was The Bullet Train, directed by Junya Satō, which essentially took the template of The Taking Of Pelham 123 and applied it to a uniquely Japanese public transportation model — high-speed express trains.

The Bullet Train’s key attribute is its approach, taking the high tech trains and introducing the idea that their predictable protocols and automated safety features could be exploited and made into liabilities.

Toei’s tactic worked, though not at all in the way the film’s producers had hoped. The film was met by a tepid response in Japan, but achieved a second life as a surprise hit in France, bringing it back to Japanese theaters for an encore run and establishing it as a sort of minor cult classic.

Sonny Chiba’s name has regularly been emphasized as a selling point for Bullet Train’s US home video releases, but it’s misleading at best. The film’s most recognizable actor is a supporting character in a large cast that includes many small roles or cameos for actors that would’ve been familiar to Japanese audiences.

Viewers may recognize familiar faces like Takashi Shimura in small supporting roles.

Like many of the Hollywood disaster films that inspired it, the story’s scope is wide, tracking several three primary sets of characters: a heist setup with the group of ransomers who planted the bomb, the crisis response by the police and railway engineers racing to capture the culprits or dismantle the bomb, and of course the panicking passengers and employees aboard the train.

The real star here is Ken Takakura, who plays the leader of the small gang of crooks behind the ransom. He and his small gang are presented in an unexpectedly sympathetic light; intelligent and sensitive men in search of a fresh start, tired of their lives’ stagnation and rotten luck.

Opposite Takahura is Ken Utsui as the director of the high tech train system, concerned mainly for the lives of his passengers but pulled in every direction by the police, government, and company interests. This character and his control center closely echo Walter Matthau’s from Pelham 123.

What all this adds up to is a high-stakes drama with tremendous performances that’s very evocative of a specific time and place exuding 70s coolness, but overly long at two and a half hours.

The US cut of the movie was significantly shorter, and has been included on previous DVD editions — I wish it were present here as well. While I’m not a fan of international editing in general, it’s quite possible in this case that it resulted in a better film.

The Package

The Bullet Train follows the usual Twilight Time format; a Limited Edition of 3000 units with a transparent Elite case and an 8-page booklet with thoughts on the film written by Julie Kirgo.

The film is presented in Japanese 1.0 DTS-HD MA with English Subtitles.

Special Features and Extras

Isolated Music and Effects Track

Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Satō on the Bullet Train (24:41)
Director and co-writer Junya Satō describes the film’s genesis, creation, cast, and reception. The interview is presented in HD, but the film clips are disappointingly from poor-quality interlaced SD source rather than the excellent Blu-ray presentation.

The Verdict

Fans of Japanese films of the era owe it to themselves to check this out, but action junkies might find Bullet Train’s languid pace and talky drama less palatable than modern Asian train-set flicks like Train To Busan or Snowpiercer.

A/V Out.

Available directly from Twilight Time.

Except where noted, all screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

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