Review By: Jonathan W. Hickam
Director: David Leitch (“Deadpool 2,” “Atomic Blonde”)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, and Sandra Bullock
Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
Available in wide theatrical release
Brad Pitt is great in “Bullet Train.” It’s too bad the film isn’t.
Adapted from Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Bullet Train” is director David Leitch’s high-concept action pastiche. It earns its “R” rating with four letter words and loads of comic blood-letting. But I found myself bored by the film’s unrelenting deluge of zippy energetic thrills.
Along with the cartoonish special effects, the amoral world of “Bullet Train” lacks an emotional center to make you care.
In this comic actioner, Pitt plays a secret operative dubbed “Ladybug.” He’s a “snatch & grab” guy who finds himself over his head when he boards a train loaded with deadly super-assassins. As he makes his way through the darkened, rainy streets of Tokyo, the floppy-haired, happy-go-lucky dude is assigned his new nickname in a playful phone conversation with his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock).
Attempting to find inner peace, Ladybug has just returned to work following some time away, locked in deep contemplation with a guru. While gathering the tools for his unique comeback mission, Maria encourages him to take the gun sitting in a train locker. He declines because he’s done with violence. Yeah, right.
We’re introduced to the train’s wicked passengers in a series of humorous and vicious flashbacks.
Partners Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), like the fruit, have parlayed their deep brotherly bond into a storied epic career as killing machines. They spar with one another jovially over how many men they’ve killed on their latest job. Is it 16 dead or 17? Lemon insists that it’s a lower number until the cheery Tangerine reminds him of the collateral damage. We’re supposed to chuckle along with them as they recount offing a large number of henchmen and an innocent with an array of automatic weaponry and deafening explosions.
By the time they’ve taken their seats on board the speeding locomotive, Tangerine and Lemon have already completed the bulk of their assignment. They’ve rescued the kidnapped son of a dangerous Russian mobster named White Death, and perhaps more importantly, they retrieved the ransom money, a briefcase containing $10 million.
For some ridiculous, unexplained reason, Lemon decides to stow the priceless case with other luggage far from their control. Of course, this provides the clumsy but savagely lucky snatch & grab man the perfect theft opportunity.
The dizzying cavalcade of killers doesn’t end there. We meet the childlike Prince (Joey King), an explosive expert who can rig any bomb. And a ferocious Hispanic killer named Wolf (played by Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny) is on his way, hell-bent on revenge. Other killers unassumingly travel among them, played by recognizable faces that will either enchant or annoy viewers with clever casting.
The story meant to pull at our heartstrings involves Kimura (Andrew Koji), who joins the fray looking for the person responsible for pushing his young son off a building. The boy lay in a hospital bed, barely clinging to life. Instead of watching over his son in a hopeful vigil, Kimura leaves, acting on information that the killer is on the bullet train. And his grief has so overcome him that Kimura isn’t much good at the killing game.
As the travelers speed to their ultimate destination, they chat, fight, and bleed. We’re supposed to have as much fun as these disturbing maniacs, but my eyes glazed over at some point. “Bullet Train” is an overstuffed piñata that explodes so many times that we forget to pick up the candy.
Pitt is a bright spot. Looking like a castaway from “Gilligan’s Island,” he wears a bucket hat and white tennis shoes that belies his prowess as a formidable opponent. He keeps us interested by spouting sage words of wisdom while awkwardly dispatching attackers. His fighting skills reminded me of Jackie Chan in “Drunken Master” mode.
But the funny accents, stylish threads, continuous canting camera angles, and overly familiar fist and gun fights fail to make “Bullet Train” distinctive. And we’re reminded of Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces” and even Michael Davis’ “Shoot ‘Em Up,” but not in a good way. This formula makes “Bullet Train” an imitator when it ought to be breaking new ground in the genre.
Director David Leitch (an uncredited director on the first “John Wick” film with a long history of stunt work) gave us better with his edgy “Atomic Blonde” and the wildly over-the-top “Hobbs & Shaw.” Here he’s innovating, if at all, by overpacking his film with endless action set-pieces reminiscent of other projects, many of which he may have worked on in a stunt coordinator capacity.
There’s fun to be had with what Leitch is doing, but there’s little substance surrounding all the well-choreographed sequences. While simplistic and direct, character motivations are larded up with contrived and overly convoluted backstories. If only we cared enough to put our brains on hold and enjoy the ride. Unfortunately, it becomes clear early that this is a train to nowhere narratively.
The trend of making action super-stars out of aging movie stars reached a peak with Liam Neeson’s long list of bone-crunching films starting with 2008’s “Taken.” That film ushered in a whole sub-genre, primarily led by Neeson, with varying degrees of success. If Pitt heads down this road, I hope he finds a vehicle with more credible dramatic elements that will take advantage of his natural charisma and significant acting ability.
“Bullet Train” is a fast-paced, light-weight ride with nothing to hold it all together.