In the 1960s, the influential film critic Pauline Kael wrote an essay titled “Trash, Art and the Movies.” In it, Kael argued that movies without artistic claims or merit deserved respect because a love of trash helps create an appetite for art.
If this seems like a highfalutin way to start a review of an action-comedy like Bullet Train, that’s because this gag-filled, celebrity whack-a-mole, bleached-of-its-Japan-ness adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka’s thriller novel MariaBeetle begins on an outlier somber note: A father (Hiroyuki Sanada) and son (Andrew Koji) argue over the hospital bed of a comatose boy who has suffered a fall from a building. The scene is so reminiscent of a John Woo screenshot—suffused as it is with the mythic solemnity of magic-hour light streaming through the window—that you half-expect doves to start fluttering in slow motion across the frame.
The son, a dissipated assassin named Kimura, soon gets a tip that the person who pushed his little boy off the roof is on a Shinkansen zooming from Tokyo to Kyoto. But Kimura, no matter how compelling his motivations may be, isn’t the point of view we’re piggybacking on to: That POV belongs to Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a mercenary who has agreed to take on the no-muss, no-fuss final assignment of grabbing a briefcase full of cash from the train and then getting off at the first stop. The joke of Bullet Train is that Ladybug can’t get off.
Complicating Ladybug’s last job is the presence of other hit men on the train. There’s a pair of twin brothers named Tangerine and Lemon who, if you’ve seen the chiseled Caucasian features of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the chubby cheeks of African-American Brian Tyree Henry, are obviously neither twins nor brothers. The pair has been conscripted by a Russian gangster named White Death to be bodyguards of both his son (The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman) and the said briefcase of cash.
Then there’s the sociopath codenamed Prince (The Kissing Booth’s Joey King), a teenager who uses her faux-schoolgirl guilelessness to manipulate people into being pawns in her intricate Grand Scheme. Other mercenaries played by Bad Bunny and Zazie Beetz appear then disappear like hip hop cameos on the middle-eight of a pop record.
Ladybug, Lemon and Tangerine as names of veteran murderers, Prince as the moniker of a teenage femme fatale—the script by Zak Olkewicz traffics in such winking contradictions. I’d take it a step further: Olkewicz’s script is all about easy signifiers. Ladybug bemoans his world’s unluckiest assassin status while Prince smugly deems herself the luckiest; Lemon sizes up people through archetypes found in his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine books while Tangerine rolls his eyes: Despite the hit men’s conflicting missions yet (hint, hint) connected histories, Olkewicz flattens each character to their one tic until the train is ultimately populated by nothing but weapon-toting spasms.
That flattening extends itself to director David Leitch’s approach to the material. Gone is the unironic sincerity that gave his breakout franchise John Wick its charm or the Cold War theatrics that gave his follow-up Atomic Blonde its oomph. Instead, Bullet Train is satisfied planting itself squarely in a post-Quentin Tarantino landscape where assassins crack zippy jokes, but the plotting goes nowhere fast. There’s a stolen venomous snake thrown into the mix, but the movie forgets about it for long stretches of running time. There’s also a tut-tutting conductor played by Heroes’ Masi Oka that the film forgets about completely.
Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela light each car in the train as its own version of a neon-colored Tokyo nightspot, so you can get your bearings and deduce where characters are at any given point in the film’s 126 minutes. But the effect is dishearteningly airless. You never escape the sense that all the intricately choreographed mayhem is being staged inside an Atlanta soundstage; even the sight of Mount Fuji outside the windows feels like a matte painting.
And if there’s one other thing Bullet Train is laden with, it’s celebrity cameos. There’s a pretty obvious one in Sandra Bullock as Ladybug’s handler, her calm voice through the cell phone talking her existentially stressed assassin through an increasingly botched operation. Others are too good to spoil: One involves an actor playing a passenger dragged into an identity sleight-of-hand, leaning into a gag that can be traced all the way back to (hint, hint) 2013’s This Is The End. Others just seem plonked down into the movie for no discernible purpose besides ticking off a returned favor.
Bullet Train always feels in danger of getting derailed—and it nearly does in its needlessly protracted, CGI-heavy third act—but Brad Pitt’s star power keeps it firmly on track. Pitt traipses through the movie with the serenity of a Zen master, delivering affirmations like “You put peace into the world and you get peace back.” It’s this above-it-all, surfer dude charisma that makes Pitt’s comedic moments work: Wearing a nondescript bucket hat and wrestling the said snake into a toilet, Pitt conveys a so-over-it demeanor that gives Bullet Train a jolt of comic energy while everyone else seems to be sweating for a laugh.
Pitt is the conductor that makes you want to stay aboard Bullet Train, even when the journey takes perhaps 15 to 20 minutes too long. Or maybe he’s the gateway dealer who can introduce you to superior action comedies or great Wuxia cinema. There’s no reason why the time you spend being entertained by Bullet Train should be for nothing.
Bullet Train opens in Philippine cinemas August 10.
Images from Columbia Pictures