Brad Pitt, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Along for the Ride in This Ultra-violent Action-Comedy
DIRECTED BY DAVID LEITCH/2022
David Leitch, former stunt coordinator-turned-director (director of Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw, and Atomic Blonde) understands sticking to what he knows best. Whenever any given combination of characters in his new hyperviolent energy drink of a movie Bullet Train get into a fist-flying skirmish, the movie ascends into momentary greatness. Every move is felt (often hard), intentionally staged yet landing organically (or organically enough), and nothing at all is ever wasted. The raw economy of these brutal showstoppers (are they really showstoppers if they are the show?) bleeds through to the plot, itself a tight n’ punchy sprawl of cockamamie badassery, and coincidental convergences told in slam cuts and abrupt tangents. Everyone is lethal, everyone has their purpose. And that’s it.
In neon over-built Japan, the sixteen-car bullet trains shoots from station to station, stopping at each for only one minute. And that’s pretty much all you need to know. That is, until the briefcase-snatching plot ramps up (this is, as my brother used to call ‘em, one of those “get the case” movies), and dangerous dudes of Robert Rodriguez proportions begin to increasingly occupy the vehicle. Before long, it’s not just a bullet train, it’s also a knife train, a bomb train, golf club train, a sword train, an all-manner-of-blunt-objects train, and even a super-venomous snake train. (In fairness, it’s also a newfangled smart toilet train). Consequently, not since Agatha Christie has a routine passenger train amassed this many dead bodies. One can hardly blame Brad Pitt for desperately trying to get off. The central joke is, he can’t- his luck is always just too crappy. The joke within that? His character is code named “Ladybug”, because, you know, ladybugs are supposed to be lucky. (Everyone in this movie is only known by some sort of intentionally over-the-top code name. Michael Shannon is the crime lord “White Death.” Zazie Beetz is “The Hornet”. Hiroyuki Sanada is “The Elder.” [Maybe that one can use some work]. Bad Bunny is upgraded to “Wolf.”)
It doesn’t take terribly long, however, to second guess the cast billing of Bullet Train. Twenty minutes in, one may wonder, was this ever, in any stage of its development, a movie about Brad Pitt? Leitch is clearly more interested in the ever-bickering pair of extremely proficient assassin brothers, dubbed “Lemon” (Brian Tyler Henry) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor Johnson). It’s to everyone’s credit that these two guys who start out as irritatingly forced in their repartee and posturing grow into something reasonably engaging.
A good theory is that Leitch initially wanted to make a stunt-filled and even more socially irresponsible “cool hitmen” movie about Lemon & Tangerine before Pitt came onboard. Any major actor’s presence will alter a project; if the above theory carries any weight whatsoever, it’s why this feels thirty percent less like one of those completely disposable post-Pulp Fiction endurance tests of contrived cleverness and pop culture references. Bullet Train still has a ton of those things, but it is not entirely about that.
The perhaps surprising truth is that the film is based upon a highly regarded crime novel by Japanese author Isaka Kōtarō (originally titled “Maria Bītoru”, or “Maria Beetle”, but redubbed “Bullet Train”, presumably to better capitalize on this film). According to an online review/synopsis, the book’s plot and characters sounds remarkably close to those of Leitch’s film, right down to Lemon’s quirky fixation with the children’s staple Thomas and Friends. Huh.
What Pitt’s Ladybug brings to this outing is not quite heart, but consciousness. He’s an older expert thief who’s traded a life of violence for one of self-help (as we’re constantly reminded through his pithy sayings and eyerolls every time he gets into a fight). That guiding voice in his earpiece? None other than Sandra Bullock, putting in a good one day’s work on this film. (Theorize as you will about how they might well have been shooting this and her earlier 2022 romp The Lost City– that one featuring Pitt in a brief role- on neighboring stages at the same time). The crossover vibe is weirdly palpable, if not in-world viable.
Along for the ride in this testosterone-powered sausage party is momentary It-girl Joey King. Dressed to the nines in a striking pink hot-girl skirt & tie number, her mastermind character is never not manipulating every situation to her total advance. That she does it by exploiting her doe-eyed girlishness gives online misogynists even more to love in this movie, one that must have already been high on their list. That this rare female character in Bullet Train so potently evokes many a Redditors’ blustering Amber Heard hatred is bound to be yet another endorphin rush for them.
Oddly, Pitt is one of the weaker links in this non-stop slam-bang barrage of visceral physicality and stupidly flashy graphic inserts. He makes the mistake of playing the comedy overtly, his efforts writ very large. Worse still, the first forty or so minutes of the movie (when he’s chatting the most with Bullock in over-played banter) land as insufferably smug. That Bullet Train manages to somewhat right its course is something of a minor miracle. It ends as a satisfying ride of slotted-together chaos and craziness, sending us on our way worn out but not completely unmoved. Not everyone involved sticks to what they know best, but for raw, often gory action spectacle (and that alone), this train runs on time.