Bullet Train (2022)
The end of the line is just the beginning.
The term ‘Your mileage may vary’ seems as apt a descriptor for stuntman-turned-director David Leitch’s new actioner Bullet Train as one can imagine. Based on the 2010 novel MariaBeetle by Kōtarō Isaka, and adapted by screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, Fear Street Part 2: 1978 (2021), Leitch’s film delivers in terms of kinetic action fused with humor but isn’t without numerous issues — of which is the bloated runtime, and more pressing is the lack of decent Asian representation in a film set in Japan.
Brad Pitt plays a mercenary code-named Ladybird who is going through a crisis about his job and his run of bad luck. He’s contracted to do a simple grab of a briefcase on the Tokyo to Kyoto bullet train after another mercenary is unable to do it. Guided over the phone by his handler (Sandra Bullock, who spends the majority of the film offscreen), Ladybird is at the end of his tether with violent situations and just wants everyone to ‘peace out’ for a while.
As Ladybird’s bad luck would have it, his easy job of extracting the briefcase is upended when he realizes he’s on a train filled with numerous assassins who are after the same prize. Notable amongst them are the “twins,” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), and the Machiavellian operative named The Prince (Joey King).
For Ladybird, the maxim that everything that can go wrong will go wrong is key. He’s trying to maintain his newfound Zen and his promise to stop killing people, but as fate would have it (or a master plan that isn’t fully revealed until the third act), that’s just not going to happen.
Ladybird quite quickly locates the briefcase and is ready to get off at the next stop (the Bullet Train famously allows only one minute per stop) when he is confronted by a cartel assassin known as The Wolf (Bad Bunny). The Wolf is out for revenge after his wedding turned into a massacre and has Ladybird in his sights. The Wolf is just one character that exists for Ladybird to fight off and win against with relative ease (Zazie Beetz’s The Hornet is another). Leitch’s direction of these fight scenes is pitch-perfect as they manage to be not only extremely violent but also quite witty, which isn’t all that surprising given that he helmed Deadpool 2 (2018).
Although Pitt is ostensibly the lead, he’s not really the character we are most invested in. Yes, he’s funny and clearly still has the skills he requires for visceral action scenes. Yet, he’s upstaged at almost every turn by the excellent performances by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick-Ass (2010), and Brian Tyree Henry, Widows (2018), who play a pair of Guy Ritchie-inspired psychopaths whose banter is at once hilarious and curiously heartfelt. Henry’s Lemon is a gift. He views the world through the lens of Thomas the Tank Engine, and as absurd as that may sound, it’s weirdly endearing and does have a plot purpose.
As propulsive as Bullet Train tries to be, it’s slowed down by a never-ending series of flashbacks. Some are essential to character development; others are redundant (there’s no reason we need to see the journey a water bottle takes to get on the train). Then there are the flashbacks that exist for unnecessary comic effect. Tangerine and Lemon squabble over how many people they killed on a mission, and the audience is shown a montage of said mission to prove who is right. It’s amusing but superfluous to the plot. Although it should be said that the more screen time the duo has, the better the film.
The movie really kicks off when legendary actor Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat (2021), boards the train looking to rescue his son Kimura (Andrew Koji) and eventually comes face to face with the film’s main antagonist, the merciless White Death (Michael Shannon). Sanada ups the action quotient to where it deserves to be, proving that casting specialist martial arts actors in crucial roles is something Leitch should have considered for more of the key cast. Karen Fukuhara (from Amazon Prime’s The Boys) is in the movie but is wasted as a concession seller on the train. Perhaps Leitch was trying to subvert our expectations by casting her in a non-action role, but if that was the case, it didn’t really work; it just illustrated how underutilized Asian actors are in the piece.
All the chaos of the film does have a final justification, although it is more than possible that by the time you find it out, you may be a little exhausted by the shenanigans and the overly twisty plot that preceded it. There’s also only so far that Pitt’s obvious charm can take the audience — he’s clearly having a blast, and I doubt anyone would dislike the new age affirmation spouting assassin, but the jokes wear thinner as they progress.
Joey King has already proved her mettle as an action star earlier this year in The Princess, but in Bullet Train, her role is more cerebral and relies on a tired convention of villain playing victim. Her character uses her youth and perceived vulnerability to trick the other punters to carry out her plan (which is the assassination of White Wolf). In effect, she’s the most chilling of all the miscreants as she committed a terrible act of violence against a child to lure his father onto the train. King is shaping up to be a talented actor, especially as she moves away from the YA romantic comedies that made her famous. In Bullet Train, her character doesn’t track as well as she should, especially when we are given the final reveal as to who she really is.
Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water (2017), is camping it the hell up in his role as White Death; his wig alone is worth the price of admission. When he finally appears on the train in the third act, his fight scenes with Sanada bring a level of gravitas to the movie that it had otherwise been missing.
Leitch places a couple of cameos in the film, one that is indisputably hilarious and the other eye-rolling in its obviousness. The movie already has too many characters with too much going on. Bad Bunny and Beetz barely get any screen time except in flashbacks. Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), as White Death’s son and the apparent reason most of the operatives are on the train, gets a few lines in before ending up as a puppet corpse.
Despite the messiness of the script in many places, what can’t be faulted is the striking cinematography and editing by Jonathan Sela, Deadpool 2 (2018), and Elizabeth Ronaldsdóttir, Kate (2021), respectively. The neon-bathed production design by David Scheunemann, Atomic Blonde (2017), adds to the overall ‘maki’ aesthetic of the film. Predictably the fight choreography is fantastic, from the John Wick style of anything can be a weapon to the more sophisticated Katana battle. If it weren’t up to muster, then Leitch would be letting down the legacy of what he’s built his career on.
Bullet Train is bombastic and silly, but it rarely pretends to be anything else. Is it a great movie? No, not by any stretch. Is it a fun movie? Yes, but like the rails, the bullet train goes off, mileage really may vary.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney