Action takes a backseat to banter and backstory in David Leitch’s latest
An adaptation of Kotaro Isaka’s Maria Beetle, Bullet Train combines a neat premise, a beguiling cast, and a director deeply experiences in the action genre. Instead of these ingredients combining to great effect, the result is an erratic and overly wrought tale of strangers on a Shinkansen. One that reminds us how a sprinkling of stardust, can go a long way to saving a picture.
Brad Pitt stars as a hired assassin, code-named Ladybug—an ill-fated soul, at least based on his last few jobs where bad luck seemed to have plagued him and unfortunate souls got caught up in his path. Returning after a hiatus, his job is simple. Board a bullet train on the Hayate railway line, running from Tokyo to Kyoto, and retrieve a briefcase. Ladybug is entirely unaware that he is stepping into the accumulation of a scheme where a number of the world’s leading assassins have been brought together for this journey. Cooped up together on a hurtling train, with 60 second windows at each stop for people to get off, or come on board. Looming large is the specter of a Russian gangster known as the White Death, whose infamous takeover of the Japanese underworld several years prior is somehow connected to the past and present of this bunch of miscreants.
As its title implies, Bullet Train moves at a breathless pace, fueled by frenetic action and the interplay between these assassins. The Twins, Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are British brothers tasked with returning the pivotal briefcase to the infamous White Death, along with his recently kidnapped son (Logan Lerman). The Wolf (Bad Bunny) is a Bolivian gangster set on revenge, while The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is a notorious a hitwoman with a particular weapon in her arsenal. Slinking amongst them is The Prince (Joey King) a master manipulator in the body of a schoolgirl. Of course the train picks up a number of other players along the way. The film is largely propelled by the banter between characters and fleshing out their backstory, components that eventually connect them by their past misdeeds and also to their future fate. There are no big action set-pieces (save a few scant flashbacks), instead punctuations of violence, typically involving Pitt and the aforementioned briefcase. Action fan pleasing fare in the form of bone crunching smackdowns, gruesome improvised kills, pop-culture references, and a train carriage (at least) worth of needle drops.
Director Chad Stahelski (Atomic Blond, John Wick (uncredited) knows something about action, even with the bland, studio-driven mush that is Hobbs & Shaw on his resume. He reinforces those credentials in occasional bursts here, but his penchant for quirky characters and stylistic choices take over and nearly derail this effort. Drawing inspiration from Joe Carnahan’s Smokin Aces, or mimicking what a Guy Ritchie take on an anime would be like, it all feels done to death, not just the characters and the script, but the look and feel of the piece too. The effectiveness and efficiency of Atomic Blonde is absent, as is the wit and character of Nobody (which Leitch produced).
Bottling up trained psychopaths on a fast moving train is a great concept for intense action, but Leitch builds a strangely unreactive world around this escalating chaos. Neither do these characters make much use of their surrounds, at least nothing at the scope of the bus sequence from Nobody. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, The Lost City) delivers an overly glossy affair, with an approach that often feels like “flick on a neon light and let them have at it”. The real problems stem from Zak Olkewicz’s script, which is tremendously silly. The jumps in time, sketching the propulsive events that lead these parties to this train, just reinforces the clumsy nature of the present. Meandering dialogue feels derived from college roommates after a late night Tarantino-marathon. Worst of all is a finale where bonds forged in blood don’t feel entirely earned, a big bad reveal surprisingly fizzles out, and a ham-fisted rumination on fate is tacked on to woeful effect.
Despite all this, the film zips along, largely thanks to the charms of Brad Pitt. Ladybird is a man who has emerged from a period of inner contemplation, whose Zen attitude plays well as a comedy contrast to the more aggressive stance most of his adversaries take. Equally slick as he is slapstick, Pitt merrily moves through these carriages, trying to create as few ripples as possible, while still being at the center of nearly every piece of brutal chaos that unfolds. Whether in a knife fight, or trying to negotiate his way out of one, while spiritually reflecting over an ear piece with his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock), or simply ordering a bottle of water, his affable presence draws you in. Dubious accent aside, Brian Tyree Henry continues to show his gravitas, even playing a man whose moral structure is informed by Thomas the Tank Engine. Mustachioed Aaron Taylor-Johnson is marvelous with his muscular take on a modern day Peaky Blinder. Joey King is fine in a role that is crying out for an actor half her age, while Zazie Beetz and Logan Lerman do as much as they can with the little that they are given. Andrew Koji plays Kimura, a man whose personal plight kicks off the film, and his mournful presence feels like it belongs in a different (and probably better) movie. Hiroyuki Sanada as his father, gives the film a weight in its final act that is sorely lacking the rest of the film.
It’s undeniable that many will have fun with the controlled chaos that fuels Bullet Train. A glossy affair that entertains through its overwhelming silliness. But, when you really consider the riches extended to Leitch in terms of cash and cast, the film begins to grate. Something compounded by a level of quirkiness that soon becomes tiresome. It’s only the charms of Brad Pitt that stops this rickety ride from careering entirely off the tracks.