With Bullet Train, it’s all in the title. A train, plus bullets. Woo woo, all aboard!
And yes. If you call your movie Bullet Train, you’re setting reviewers on a one-way track to using all the train-related puns in the book. So headlines about this John Wick-esque Brad Pitt movie brand it a trainwreck of nonsense, a one-way trip to snoozeville, a runaway sleeper derailed by its own inanity.
But you know what: you can buy me a ticket and I’ll meet you on the platform, because Bullet Train is a blast. It’s a gleefully exaggerated high-speed journey into action and comedy driven by swaggering star turns and first class boxcar brawls, and I’d work on that railroad all the live-long day — no, I don’t think I can keep this up. Bullet Train is in theaters now and it’s just a hell of a fun time at the movies, OK?
Pitt stars as a killer-for-hire who’s cheerfully determined to swap his life of killing for a new outlook on life. But his self-help mantras from him are sorely tested when he boards a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and finds himself entangled with a buffet car-load of rival hitmen – and their sights trained on the unsuspecting Pitt. Stylized, self-aware and occasionally surreal action dreams.
Your conductor for this gleefully entertaining mayhem is David Leitch, the former stuntman and second unit director who helped reinvent action cinema when he co-directed John Wick, as well as helming Atomic Blonde. While Bullet Train does feature a bunch of high-concept fight scenes, it isn’t quite the wall-to-wall set piece machine those films were. Instead, it’s a looser, baggier tale of larger-than-life characters bouncing off each other in a blackly comic crime flick in the style of Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino and, er, Tex Avery. It’s clearly inspired by tough-talking, gun-toting Japanese gangster films, but it also shares the freewheeling cut-and-paste stylings of Kill Bill, the heightened jet-black humor of Grosse Pointe Blank, and the frying-pan-to- the-face absurdity of a Looney Tunes toon. It also evokes Smokin’ Aces –remember that? — a similar collection of cartoon-character assassins thrown together in a plot built from intricate but ludicrous contrivances.
Viewing Bullet Train as a slapstick popcorn confection, it’s easier to forgive the film’s failings. This movie has the depth of a paper train ticket (oh, and having one of your characters pointing out that movies these days are superficial doesn’t magically absolve your movie from being superficial).
And despite being based on a Japanese novel (Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka) Bullet Train is uncomfortably flippant about Asian culture (we really don’t need Brad Pitt saying “Wasabi!” in a mock-Japanese accent the way he said “The way!” in a fake-Spanish voice twenty years ago).
Worst of all is the endless parade of dead wives. It won’t take you long to count the number of women in the film, and it’ll take you even less time to count the number of women who get to speak (including a train steward whose only line is to offer Pitt some snacks , in Japanese, before later being punched in the face). Meanwhile, try counting the number of male characters motivated by flashbacks of their voiceless wife being brutally murdered in flashback. You might suspect it’s parody, but while this film loves to wink at the audience, this is one area where I doubt its self-awareness.
Still, Leitch keeps Bullet Train on the rails and whizzing through station after station of zippy flashbacks, dizzily interlocked stories and countless intricate setups and payoffs. The excellent ensemble cast is utterly committed to their improbable characters, all of whom look utterly fantastic (both in their razor-sharp #OutfitInspo clothes and their swaggering self-assurance). Pitt breezes through this sort of thing with the easy charm of an unassailable movie star, while Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry all fill the screen with complete confidence. Of all people, the weak links are Michael Shannon and rapper Bad Bunny, a charismatic musician left with a pretty thankless role that consists entirely of silent glowering. But everybody’s quickfire banter and commitment to the bit is what keeps the film on the rails — wait, I already used that one. Wow, keeping up these train jokes is hard. Look, if you think my railway-themed puns are tortured, just wait ’til you see how often the movie comes back to an extended running joke about Thomas the frickin’ Tank Engine.
The final showdown goes on a bit, but just when you think Bullet Train is running out of steam (last one I promise) the film serves up another bananas stylistic flourish. What a way to run a railroad!
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