The trailer for stuntman-turned-filmmaker David Leitch’s new film Bullet Train paints a tempting picture of the stuff movie dreams are made of—a riotously fun star-studded popcorn flick extravaganza. I (should) know better than to trust a trailer at this point, but hell if I didn’t get excited for this one anyway.
And goddamnit, I’ve been played again.
Adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s novel of the same name, Bullet Train centers hitman and bad luck magnet “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt), who has recently discovered therapy and is deeply questioning his life choices, even as he agrees to step in last minute for what is supposedly a quick and easy job stealing a briefcase full of money off a train. The job, of course, quickly proves neither quick nor easy. It turns out the train is crawling with other hitmen, psychos, desperate souls, and a highly venomous snake, all with conflicting goals. (And maybe like 5 Japanese people, but more on that later.)
The other hitmen include trigger-happy brothers “Lemon” and “Tangerine” (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively), en route to return the stolen wayward son (Logan Lerman) of feared crime boss The White Death (Michael Shannon); the psycho is a schoolgirl in pink who goes by “The Prince” (Joey King) plotting to take down the White Death himself; the desperate soul a downtrodden man known as “The Father” (Andrew Koji) who seeks vengeance against the psycho for pushing his young son off the roof of a building but quickly finds himself a pawn in her game.
There is some half-hearted effort toward introducing deeper internal motivations for at least some of the characters. Still, mostly this film remains within the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with most characters’ actions and reactions pretty comprehensively summed up as some combination of “secure the bag” and “don’t die.”
Much like fellow former stunt coordinator (and frequent collaborator) Chad Stahelski, Leitch’s strengths as a filmmaker are most on display in the action sequences, which are dynamic and engagingly choreographed, including a few standouts that make particularly good use of props. The bottled water industry might be one of the most egregious in terms of its impact on our planet (particularly relative to actual necessity), but one such single-use plastic villain does play an especially entertaining supporting role here.
While at times the acrobatic camerawork highlights the artificiality of the environment more than would be ideal, the overall energy and playfulness are still generally welcome, even if the particular nature of the stylization here can at times feel overly derivative (read: trying very hard to be Tarantino with a side of early Guy Ritchie). Unfortunately, the writing is as awkward as the camerawork is energetic—that is, very. Zak Olkewicz’s script often aims for banter but generally lacks the wit to achieve such lofty goals. While there are some fun exchanges, it is never the dialogue itself that works so much as it is the delivery and timing, both from the actors and through editing—Elisabet Ronaldsdottir’s work here is a major plus—that elevates dialogue that is rarely better than “fine” and often decidedly less than.
While Brad Pitt is still of course Brad Pitt and radiates charisma as his default setting that has no apparent off switch, it’s the dynamic duo of Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson who steal the show here in spite of grating Cockney accents, making the achievement all the more impressive. Their brotherly banter and chemistry make for the one convincing relationship in the whole film. Taylor-Johnson in particular gets the only emotionally compelling moment in the whole thing in a dramatically charged close-up where his reaction is entirely non-verbal (and yes, this last bit does feel very crucial to the moment’s success).
We are inevitably in an era of the global blockbuster, where international markets and audiences hold far too much sway over the financial success or failure of any major release to not be considered throughout the process, but Bullet Train does not feel like a step towards the future so much as the past, with a distractingly white cast gallivanting through a cartoonishly rendered version of Japan with punchlines about people being polite and bowing in greeting.
It’s the sort of film that proclaims itself as “international,” but in spite of Hiroyuki Sanada’s welcome presence (as “The Elder,” the retired but still elegantly threatening career criminal father of “The Father”), it’s mostly just a slightly more polished version of tired old nonsense; white people causing havoc against a poorly rendered backdrop that leans heavily on stereotype. It’s the sort of film that knows you can’t say things like “oriental” or “exotic” anymore, but only barely, and the same sentiments are still there just in a slightly more codified manner. While there is the common issue of almost all the main cast being American or British, a problem that can at least in some small part be mitigated by casting demands placed on filmmakers by their financiers out of notions of star power and marketability, Bullet Train takes things a step further—an inexplicable number of even the featured extras are white. Why is the person who shushes Brad Pitt in the quiet car a white lady? Why? Where are all the Japanese passengers on this train to Kyoto? It’s that level of white nonsense where things get particularly baffling.
Maybe at some point, Hollywood will realize that “international” could mean something other than bleaching some non-English speaking backdrop to the edge of recognition and throwing in a token local here and there. Bullet Train feels like a missed opportunity for a truly international romp—throw in a K-drama star into the ensemble, a Bollywood star. Hiroyuki Sanada and a cameo from Bad Bunny (who should perhaps stick to music) are not enough. And let’s not even get into the dreadful waste of Zazie Beetz here, who continues to need a better agent.
Joey King’s psychopathic schoolgirl character “The Prince” (her parents wanted a boy) in particular feels like a role that could have worked much better given to a Japanese actress. Gender-flipped from the novel, in which the character is male, the Prince in her overwhelmingly pink school girl ensemble given a coquettish edge by heavy makeup feels like an attempt to riff off manga and anime archetypes that then remembered how the Scarlett Johannson Ghost in the Shell mess played out and balked. The Prince feels like a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas that primarily succeeds at being dreadfully irritating—which is partly intentional but goes too far to be consistently enjoyable (and is unfortunately exacerbated by King’s efforts at a British accent).
While it is still miles more watchable and entertaining than the absolute travesty that was The 355, a similar effort towards an “international” blockbuster that fell dreadfully short, Bullet Train is ultimately an overly generic and dated blockbuster beneath a shiny veneer that feels like a small fraction of the film it could have been.
Bullet Train is now playing in theaters.