Near the end of the new action headache “Bullet Train” a character is trying to stop the titular train as it speeds out of control. Desperately trying every switch and button he screams for the roaring machine to stop.
After the first forty-five minutes of “Train” I wanted the same thing.
“Bullet Train” is a live-action cartoon of violence and over-the-top madness that entertains but runs out of steam, and too soon.
Adapted by screenwriter Zak Olkewicz from the novel by Kōtarō Isaka, director David Leitch’s wild narrative is set almost completely on the high-speed rail in Japan that connects Tokyo to Kyoto.
Inside this train is an assortment of professional assassins.
Brad Pitt is Ladybug, a paid killer who wishes to renounce his life of violence and put an end to a string of bad luck (which has driven him to seek therapy).
Ladybug is hired by his mysterious handler (whose identity is spoiled in the trailer) to retrieve a briefcase from one of the train’s passengers, this leads to a chain of events in which each assassin is revealed to the next and Ladybug must survive the night.
Brad Pitt is a wonderful actor who has done well in comedic roles (his few scenes in Tony Scott’s “True Romance” are gold) but here he’s trying too hard. He certainly made me laugh now and again, but the character’s silly self-reflection and penchant for constant wisecracking in the middle of a fight just didn’t fit. The dialogue never seemed to flow naturally and Pitt’s performance seemed an arduous task.”
Two of the best young character actors working today fared better. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play “Lemon” and “Tangerine.” The two are a bantering pair of killers from England who were hired to return a suitcase and screw-up son (Logan Lerman in a thankless role) back to the mysterious gangster named “The White Death” (Michael Shannon in a very odd performance).
Henry and Taylor-Johnson steal the film with their sharp wit and natural chemistry, this pair is a pleasure to watch, their dedication to character pays off as they cycle between funny, tough and heartfelt turns.
Then there’s “The Wolf” (played by rapper Bad Bunny), a Mexican assassin who seeks revenge on the one who murdered his entire wedding party, including his new bride. The Wolf appears like an uber-macho character straight out of a Walter Hill film.
“Hornet” (the great Zazie Beetz) is a killer who disposes of her targets with the venom from a deadly snake. Beetz is an inventive actress but here she is underused and her short time on the screen results in the most underwhelming sequences of the film. As Hornet fights with Ladybug, the actress grimaces and spews out ridiculous dialogue where every line ends with “bitch.”
The screenplay has some fun with the audience’s sleuthing abilities, there are more MacGuffins in this film than found in Alfred Hitchcock’s entire filmography, yet many of the big reveals don’t surprise nor do they pack any wallop.
What director Leitch does well (as he did in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde”) is creating eye-popping action scenes with brutal stunt choreography.
Leitch is a former stuntman, doubling for Brad Pitt in many of his films. He is an expert at fight sequences and filming them. The fights here are tough and they take place in the tight confines of a train, which enhances their intensity. Most are fun to watch yet are too often ruined by a blaring pop and heavy metal soundtrack. Where the director allowed us to feel every visceral moment in “John Wick,” here the impact of the fights drowns in the excessive use of music.
The film plays well enough for a while until going completely off the rails. No one thinks the director was aiming for Shakespearean heights with this picture, but the fun of the first third quickly spirals towards the excessive, reaching the point of redundancy, finally suffocating under all the mayhem.
The film’s kinetic pace and violent characters with profound things to say about pop culture isn’t anything we haven’t already seen in the films of Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino.
Leitch is an excellent action filmmaker, and this picture is certainly not a Ritchie/Tarantino rip-off, but these types of characters have been done to death. It really takes a lot to make something like this look and feel fresh.
Reveling in its unapologetic excesses, “Bullet Train” is fun for a time. Borrowing from the title of the excellent Hunter S. Thompson documentary, I would recommend audiences buy the ticket and take the ride, but make sure you get off by mid-film.