Basically: Reaches for early Guy Ritchie but stumbles into Smokin’ Aces territory.
Picture it. Modern-day Japan, but glazed in a cinematic mixture of high-gloss and glittering blood. A young child is thrown from a department store roof. The two generations of fathers before him plan their vengeance. While a cadre of hired killers are unknowingly set to collide on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Each has a codename that reveals everything or nothing about them: Ladybug, Tangerine & Lemon, The Prince, Hornet, The Elder—each comes with a backstory that entangles the others. And finally, a boss-level villain called the White Death (for reasons to become clear), who must have decided he needed a movie made about his life and therefore concocted a scheme so ridiculously complicated that fictional filmmakers would wet their jeans to have a go at it. That is this story.
/// warning /// While it is amusing and well acted and full of some form of action, the more you think about Bullet Train the less sense the plot makes. If you like this cast and have plans to enjoy this movie, for the love of kittens and cupcakes: DO NOT THINK ABOUT IT.
/// you have been warned ///
If you’re here, you probably know how much I love assassin movies. I have a depth of patience for how egregiously bombastic these films can be. Yet, if it has fantastic fight choreography, interesting characters, and an impetus for those characters and their story, I am typically all in. Typically.
We begin with Ladybug AKA Brad Pitt who is back on the job after a mental health break. His handler AKA Sandra Bullock sends him on a smash-and-grab mission because the mysterious Carter (cameo imminent) isn’t able to take the job. In another part of the city, The Prince, otherwise known as Joey King, has done very bad things. Which sends The Elder, embodied by the legend Hiroyuki Sanada, and his son Kimura (Andrew Koji) on the hunt to find her. Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) have business with another son and a mid-sized case of money. Oh, and a poisonous snake is missing.
Sounds great, right? It could have been. Bullet Train has the cast and the concept to make a classic. The original source material by Kotaro Isaka made sure of that. Themes of luck and fate are woven throughout the runtime and it is directed quite well by David Leitch. The humor is violently campy, the characters are memorable, and everything you learn pays off. Yet somehow the film doesn’t quite land. First of all, it makes no sense whatsoever. None. It is a sense-vacuum. Often during the movie, I asked myself: But why though? Bullet Train is also so predictable I thought I’d written it and somehow forgot. And it seems pleased with itself—like a multi-billionaire descendant of multi-billionaires strutting around and thumping his chest because of all his hard work. It’s like: We see you. Get on with it.
I was more annoyed by Bullet Train than anything else because it feels like such a lost opportunity. Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is haplessly endearing. He pulls you in and keeps you there. The same as Taylor-Johnson and Henry; they don’t quite hit “Jules and Vincent” levels of banter but there’s something about them that makes you want to watch a Tangerine & Lemon movie. The amazing Brian Tyree Henry is just as wonderful as ever but he has an odd British accent that—like my enjoyment of this movie—comes and goes. Every performance pops, even the flash appearances there to give the audience a thrill of recognition. But the fight scenes are mostly flat, except in those moments when they serve as Rube Goldberg machines of death.
This train tries to throw back to early Guy Ritchie with a Tarantino twist but chugs into Smokin’ Aces territory with a big goofy grin and a not-quite-sharp but bloody knife fueling it.
One question is: Was it necessary to strip the Japanese cast down to two mains and primarily background? Why? The biggest question is: Why is the most terrifying yakuza leader of all-time a Russian white man? It is perplexing and bothersome.
I guess that gives me an accurate In the End: While amusingly enacted by a top-tier cast with popcorn crunching aplomb, Bullet Train is perplexing and annoying because it doesn’t live up to its promise (and the fight scenes are mid too).