|Director: Thomas Leitch|
|Screenplay: Zak Olkewicz (based on the book by Kôtarô Isaka)|
|Stars: Brad Pitt (Ladybug), Joey King (Prince), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Tangerine), Brian Tyree Henry (Lemon), Andrew Koji (Kimura), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Elder), Michael Shannon (White Death), Sandra Bullock (Maria), Benito A Martínez Ocasio (Wolf), Logan Lerman (The Son), Zazie Beetz (The Hornet), Masi Oka (Conductor)|
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 2022|
|Country: U.S. / Japan|
Almost the entirety of Bullet Train takes place aboard the titular high-speed vehicle, and by the end of its two-hours-and-change running time, I was ready to get off. It is not a bad film, exactly, but it quickly wears out its welcome when it becomes clear that it is little more than a grab-bag of sub-Tarantino criminal dialogue, manga-inspired action, and multinational stunt casting. Every piece of it feels ripped or clipped from something better, and while there are moments here and there that work, particularly some of the darker of the dark humor, too much of it is too familiar to work as anything more than reheated leftovers—some of which dates back to the late ’90s when enterprising young filmmakers were falling all over themselves to create the next Pulp Fiction (remember John Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley? Doug Liman’s Go?).
There are roughly a dozen characters scattered throughout the candy-colored action, most of them criminal and all of them pursuing some goal aboard an all-night train running from Tokyo to Kyoto. The nominal star is Brad Pitt, who plays Ladybug, a conscientious former assassin who is on board the train not to kill anyone, but simply to steal a suitcase. He is constantly on the phone with his handler, Maria (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who seems to know and see all. The briefcase is in the possession of two well-dressed and coifed British baddies, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are on the train escorting the son (Logan Lerman) of a legendary and much feared crime lord known as White Death (Michael Shannon). Also on board is one of White Death’s former couriers, Kimura (Andrew Koji), whose son is in the hospital after being pushed off a building. Kimura is essentially kidnapped by Prince (Joey King), a sociopathic schemer in innocent schoolgirl guise who needs him for her revenge plan. We also have a Mexican assassin named Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio) who blames Ladybug for the death of his new bride and most of their wedding party, and another assassin named The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), who remains an enigmatic presence, while just outside the action is The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), Kimura’s concerned father who is clearly more than he seems to be. Oh, and there is a poisonous snake slithering around, as well.
Bullet Train was scripted by Zak Olkewicz, whose only other credit is the second part of Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy (2021), from the well-received 2010 novel by Kôtarô Isaka, whose novels and short stories have been the basis for more than a dozen films in his native Japan. With stuntman-turned-director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) at the helm, the film is in constant motion—literally—but it still feels strangely stagnant, possibly because everything feels so effortful. Unlike the best action-comedies, there is nothing breezy or light about the film; rather, it runs hard and heavy, constantly trying to impress you with its bloody mayhem. Leitch knows his way around action sequences (his work as a stuntman and stunt coordinator is nothing short of legendary), but all the rapid-fire fisticuffs and brawling feel loud and empty. There are some stabs at humor in the violence, particularly as the various criminals and hitmen try to go about their gory enterprise without attracting attention from the other passengers, but it is as if Leith got bored with the idea, and by the end they simply pretend like no one else is on the train except the main characters. Bodies pile up constantly, many from Pitt’s character, who kills all of them accidentally in one of the film’s better long-running jokes. Pitt has long been an underappreciated comic actor, but his character here has no real rhythm that he can sink his teeth into. Ladybug is, like all the other characters on board, a two-dimensional cipher who is just along for the (overlong) ride.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Sony / Columbia Pictures