Review: Bullet Train

This summer we’ve already had our earnest action movie in Top Gun Maverick, so now it’s time for something a bit more irreverent. Bullet Train is torn a bit between some serious elements and its comedic core, but it succeeds in being a top action comedy thanks to Brad Pitt’s charisma and ability to play the hapless goof.

“Ladybird” (Pitt) is a contractor undertaking various nefarious things for handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), but after a few incidents where he inadvertently kills people, he elects for a simple delivery job in Tokyo as part of a new mantra. Unfortunately for him, the simple job intersects with a wide array of other criminals and killers onboard a bullet train across Japan. Action ensues.

I’ve come to expect a lot from director David Leitch, given his previous few films include John Wick, Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 (OK, less expectation after that), and reading that plot synopsis (this is an adaptation of a Japanese novel, Maria Beetle, by Kotaro Isaka), I would have expected Leitch to be one of the top picks for this film.

Taking Zak Olkewicz’s screenplay, Leitch crafts 75% of a cleverly-staged, irreverent and twist-filled action-comedy-thriller, and while I haven’t read the book, don’t come to this looking for the most in-depth characterisation for your whole cast! If you’ve seen Smokin’ Aces, this is Smokin’ Aces on a Train – the plot justifies weird, unknown and pseudonym-titled characters as that film did, and has a similar number of twists, but thankfully doesn’t go into quite the dark places that film bizarrely did towards the end.

Leitch and former co-director Chad Stahelski (John Wick Chapter Two and John Wick 3: Parabellum) are former stuntmen, and so I always get excited about one of their films – I’m not going in expecting taut personal drama. Leitch doesn’t disappoint while on the train (this is a key distinction), with close quarters combat packing a mean punch and looking like it hurts, though here he’s definitely erring more on the side of comedy-action a lot of the time. This is ably supported by editor Elisabet Ronaldsdottir’s decision to showcase, not abruptly cut, action scenes, giving them room to breathe as all the best editors do, and enabling us to clearly follow the action, no matter how frenetic it gets.

That’s not to say blood isn’t spilt and bodies aren’t dotting the train – absolutely not! It’s plenty gory enough, and so it’s morbid or dark humour, and the idea of setting such an action film in the rather limited confines of a passenger train is a masterstroke. It’s when the film decides to take the action out of the train, and out of the bounds of realism, that it all becomes a lot less impressive – in addition, an ever-more-convoluted plot introducing new characters to fear, with a spider’s web of interconnections between all of our main players, somewhat overstuffs proceedings.

The film also looks better when inside the train or when focusing on evenings/nights in Japan – once the day comes, everything gets that delightful greenscreen, fake hue. It’s a shame, because cinematographer Jonathan Sela sells the idea of a real train with cleverly-deployed HD screens on the windows bringing natural (and unnatural) light in; in turn, his cityscape lighting is appropriately neon or harshly-lit city centre station platform blank. The interior of the train not only benefits from that plush, modern lighting we often see (well, not on UK trains!), but stellar production design that creates a strong sense of place.

So it looks (mostly) good; however, beyond some on-the-nose Japanese covers of American songs that bear little relation to the plot, the score from Dominic Lewis may as well as not exist (this is a grim, growing trend in cinema in recent times). I must, however, give Leitch and co enormous credit for the hilarious deployment of multiple versions of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles – and yes, West Ham fans: this US action movie, starring Brad Pitt, is doing this in relation to the Hammers, as I’ll mention later.

I’ve noted how the film falls apart a bit towards the end, as CGI rears its ugly head and plot convolutions get stupid: but Bullet Train does not crumble completely, and that’s thanks to Brad. Clearly loving being centre stage and having great fun, Pitt’s at his easygoing, chilled-out bro best, and without his quizzical, hapless and often completely lost central performance deflating the film’s growing seriousness, it’d be Smokin’ Aces all over again.

He helps bring everything down to a normal level by effortlessly inhabiting this trained professional who’s just trying to live a calmer, more relaxed life – he’s still more than capable (Leitch was Pitt’s stuntman before he became a director, but Pitt’s clearly in the thick of it all here), but “Ladybug” emanates a strong John McClane energy, which is never a bad thing for an action film. Rare is the film now that allows Pitt’s charisma and comedic chops to take centre stage, but Bullet Train does it and shows how good he is.

Among the rogue’s gallery of supporting characters, Brian Tyree Henry’s Lemon and Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Tangerine stand out – bantering around, mocking each other in a dysfunctional sibling relationship, the two have great chemistry and a similarly cack-handed approach to the assassination game.

Henry’s slightly ropey Cockney accent can be forgiven, as he’s great – finally taking a less intense role, he’s hilarious, not least by inhabiting a character with an inexplicable obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine that actually makes a warped sort of sense (with this and Ant-Man, Hollywood has never been so enraptured with the blue train). Taylor-Johnson again is having a riot here, and for once playing British rather than a bland American, showing off his action ability and his comic timing in fistfights with Pitt and others, and giving us UK viewers that little bit extra with the character’s love for West Ham.

Two Japanese actors bring a degree of quality and seriousness to proceedings, Andrew Koji’s washed-up gang member the beating human heart of the film, having been caught in an impossible quandary. He gives a good dramatic performance that grounds the film, and works well in terms of bringing seriousness into the otherwise madcap and zany character interactions.

Hiroyuki Sanada’s elder statesman is similar, though also surprisingly funny in a couple of scenes: he suffers more from inhabiting what can appear to be a little-too-stereotypical a role, from his appearance to his gnomic pronouncements, through to his katana (though as I’ve not read the book, I can’t say for sure if this is the case or not).

Outside these notable five, Joey King is worth discussing, with the American actress donning a fairly convincing English in a performance of total control, arrogance and psychopathy that unravels later. Having seen her in the surprisingly brutal (and generally impressive) The Princess on Disney+, she’s an action star in the making.

Michael Shannon does his distinctive unhinged thing as a much-discussed but essentially undercooked big menace, while Bullock is all sultry, sardonic voiceover (on the phone to “Ladybug”) and a tiny cameo – it feels like a fun deal was done for her to appear here and Pitt in The Lost City, but they’d make a good pair of leads in other films like this. Outside this, there are glorified but amusing assassin cameos from Logan Lerman and Zazie Beetz, as well as Japanese-American TV stars Masi Oka and Karen Fukuhara as oblivious train staff.

Finally, it’s worth giving Benito Martinez Ocasio (or the musician Bad Bunny) a mention: his assassin character’s story is… unconventionally handled here, but in a series of quite starkly serious flashbacks, the musician/actor is impressively fierce and makes an impression. It’s also key that I mention some HUGE cameos here: as mentioned before with Bullock and Pitt, I think there’s a growing group of high (and I mean HIGH) profile actors who enjoy cameoing in each other’s films, and the two here are hilarious surprises.

I called Bullet Train basically Smokin’ Aces on a train earlier, but it’s the best comparison I can make. What makes this better is that while it still has the pseudonyms for assassins, unforeseen twists and a habit for taking some of this too seriously, Brad Pitt’s character elevates Bullet Train above it.

The problem the film has is that – torturing the metaphor – it has to escalate to top speed to chase the other trains to the station (spectacle and money), but staying at its more satisfying slower speed would have made it a much better film all round. However, it’s still good fun, and I can see it becoming a franchise starter (though without Pitt, Leitch’s action and that balance of humour with the violence, it’ll break down quicker than a British railway franchise).

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