While viewing Bullet Train, a number of directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Joe Carnahan, and Timur Bekmambetov, came to mind. The difference is that those directors have mostly abandoned this style of brutal slaughter, which bombards you with slick dark humor, increasing bloodshed, and gratuitous gore until you become numb. With occasionally amusing consequences, David Leitch‘s directing credits—Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw—have stayed firmly tied to his stunt experience. But his most recent film’s convoluted narrative and one-note characters get extremely tiresome very quickly because it is so preoccupied with presenting brutal action with a self-satisfied grin.
Leitch has frequently assisted Brad Pitt as his stunt double, so there is some irony in him directing a film that makes so heavy use of the actor’s casual charm. But even Pitt, who made a bucket hat seem stylish, can’t save this tedious film version of Zak Olkewicz’s 2010 book Maria Beetle by Kôtarô Isaka.
The majority of the main characters have undergone foreign transformations, in contrast to the novel, where all the assassins who come into conflict on the Tokyo-to-Kyoto bullet train are Japanese, prompting internet criticism of whitewashing. The writer and other key members of the creative team have justified the casting decisions, arguing that the setting and characters don’t rely much on realism.
But it’s maybe noteworthy that nobody onscreen gains any kind of depth until the very compelling Hiroyuki Sanada shows forward to play a vital role in the dramatic event.
The comic book narrative extremes in this thriller about family, fate, and riches serve to lower the risks. With his little kid on life support after being shoved from a building’s top, low-level criminal father Kimura (Andrew Koji) stands over the hospital bed in the opening scene of Bullet Train. Sanada portrays the boy’s grandpa, who is simply referred to as The Elder (like all the other characters, there is dual-language onscreen text). He is a harshly disapproving figure who orders his drinking son to get retribution and restore the family’s dignity.
This central narrative may be bogged down in the most clichéd Asian film cliches, but it doesn’t deserve to be so casually dismissed by Pitt’s character, Ladybug, as she strolls through Tokyo to a Japanese rendition of “Staying Alive.” Ladybug is a recent therapy convert who is trying to settle disputes amicably since she believes she has awful luck that frequently results in unexpected fatalities on her missions. But in-between jokes, his handler (Sandra Bullock, who isn’t visible until the very end) convinces him to return to work by removing a briefcase from the bullet train.
When his assignment coincides with the work of two British assassins going by the names of Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), whose quarreling doesn’t conceal their longtime sibling relationship, it turns out to be more difficult than imagined. The Prince (Joey King), a second-generation murderer who skillfully uses the guise of an innocent schoolgirl to disarm her enemies, is also on board. Poison specialist The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) spends most of the action in the shadows. The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, better known by his stage as Bad Bunny), one of her victims, joins the train to exact revenge for the death of his wife at their wedding in Mexico. A dangerous snake that was stolen from the zoo is also present
Ladybug continues to develop personally, showing compassion for dangerous foes by uttering trite pop-psych aphorisms such as “Hurt people hurt others.” But he also deals out some agony while traveling to Kyoto, where the notorious Russian underworld boss known as The White Death (Michael Shannon) and his hitmen are waiting for them.
It’s depressing to watch how poorly so many talented performers are utilized. The jokes are overdone, even if there is modest enjoyment in listening to Henry analyze Lemon’s professional interactions using lessons gained from the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s books while speaking with a working-class London accent. Pitt amuses the audience by using an automatic toilet’s air-dry feature to give his hair a fast blowout. However, most of the time the screenplay makes too much of an effort to support the actor’s trademark easy humor.
Similar to the demanding action, the convoluted narrative devices are used to bind everyone together. Leitch, director Jonathan Sela, and the stunt team do a respectable job simulating action-packed brawls inside the cramped compartments of the train, complete with gunfire, swordplay, and the weaponized use of any object at hand, including computers, water bottles, and a plush mascot. But despite the film’s intense physicality and brutal punishment, there’s a soullessness to it all that makes every manufactured grin grating. Because there are no sympathetic individuals, either good or bad, we don’t care who is beaten to a pulp or shot to bits.
Naturally, there are the required humorous needle drops, such as the Japanese version of “Holding Out for a Hero,” the early 1960s pop crossover smash “Sukiyaki,” and songs by Englebert Humperdinck and Peter, Paul, and Mary. And then there are the cameos—famous people who appear unacknowledged and add to the ensemble’s already excessive talent. One of them is such groaningly apparent casting that you wonder how we got away with having so little of him. He is portraying the source of much difficulty and dropped out of the mission that Ladybug was given. Unless you’re astute enough to avoid this danger, you could be considering evacuation at two hours and beyond.