bullet train (2022)
Columbia/rated R/126 minutes
Directed by David Leitch
Produced by Kelly McCormick, David Leitch and Antoine Fuqua
Written by Zak Olkewicz, based on Kōtarō Isaka’s Maria Beetle
Starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martínez Ocasio and Sandra Bullock
Cinematography by Jonathan Sela
Edited by Elisabet Ronaldsdottir
Music by Dominic Lewis
Opening theatrically on August 5 courtesy of Sony
David Leitch and Zak Olkewicz’s bullet train delivers on all its promises. Based upon Kōtarō Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle, the film is about a reluctant hitman/mercenary who ends up on a Japanese bullet train trying to evade, outsmart or defeat a handful of other rival assassins/colorful baddies. It’s as violent as you’d expect, with not a little over-the-top R-rated gore, but the carnage is partially confined to flashbacks and narrative digressions. This means there’s real tension when these armed pros are double-dealing and outfoxing each other and genuine shock when blood is explicitly shed in pursuit of the film’s McGuffin. It is almost chaotically paced and structured, to the point where quiet conversations and one-on-one beatdowns almost count as time-out moments, but it works despite its jittery nature. It’s cheeky to a fault, but it works as the last big summer tentpole of 2022.
If you’ve been in theaters since March, you’ve probably seen the trailers for this one 7,401 times. As such, I’ll assume you’ll know the elevator pitch and that it stars Brad Pitt alongside a slew of recognizable and/or prestigious performers. Pitt is in full movie star mode as a guy who’d rather not be doing his dangerous and violent job. He is increasingly flabbergasted at his seemingly terrible (or excellent?) luck concerning continued violent confrontations. There is a certain irony in the movie, which has taken some flak for adapting a Japanese novel and placing Brad Pitt in the leading role, being about a white American who is desperately trying not to be the main character amid a multi-pronged crime plot . Regardless, the film opens with a solemn prologue featuring Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada before shifting into its preferred candy-colored carnage mode.
Those two come back even as the film asserts itself as a skewed variation on the various post-Pulp Fiction Tarantino rip offs. Those films were filled with colorful actors delivering colorful dialogue while killing each other with at least a little ironic detachment. Many of them, think Killing Zoe, The Boondock Saints or Suicide Kings, flirt with ironic detachment, missing that Tarantino’s crime flicks are dramas featuring funny characters rather than outright comedies. Likewise, bullet Train struggles to balance its gee-whiz tone with more serious subplots or character beats. Moreover, the film loses fun opportunities by casting to type. For example, Koji (as a guilt-ridden father trying to avenge a near-fatal attack on his young son) gets zero opportunities to be funny while Joey King (as a ruthless operator disguised as a bookworm schoolgirl) gets few action beats despite her recent ass kicking turn in The Princess.
It’s at its best when it plays akin to Pitt’s hapless snatch-and-grabber haplessly wandering into several different stories, plots that often involve brutal fisticuffs and gruesome death. Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry supply fast-talking entertainment value (and copious past-tense bloodshed) as quirky brothers completing a mission to rescue a mob boss’s derelict son. Bad Bunny cameos as an early adversary, and the brutal showdown typifies the film’s action. It’s all well-staged and coherent, but it’s also juiced by the notion that none of these people want to fight each other. While they are mostly skilled, few of them are action-god superstars. The showdowns are expertly choreographed and edited to create authentic incompetence as these foes smash each other up all over the train cars. Punches miss, bones are accidentally smashed, characters get tired, and confrontations sometimes end like a Final Destination movie.
The casual conversation, including one character who adores Thomas the Tank Engine, and one-on-one skirmishes are where the movie excels. Seeing the third act up the ante arguably beyond where it needs to go is disheartening. The final set pieces, some of which were hidden in the marketing, feel like the result of ‘be bigger’ studio notes rather than an organic conclusion. Still, I won’t pretend that the climax doesn’t deliver big-screen showmanship, including one inspired character turn from a not-so-surprising participant. It successfully blends Guy Ritchie gangster tropes, mid-90s Tarantino knockoffs and newfangled action filmmaking into a tasty, low-nutrition cinematic sundae. Considering the current discourse about streaming-centric production values, it’s a pleasure to see a big-screen movie that looks and feels like a big-screen movie. bullet train is a bumpy but enjoyable ride.