Your enjoyment of “Bullet Train,” a new action adventure now playing in theatres, will depend directly on your enjoyment of star Brad Pitt. He’s having fun punching, shooting and generally behaving badly throughout, but it’s possible he’s having more fun than the audience.
Based on the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle,” “Bullet Train” stars Pitt as assassin “Ladybug.” Plagued by mishaps—“My bad luck is biblical,” he complains.—he wants out of the criminal life. “You put peace into the world and you get peace back,” he says.
When his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), needs a replacement for a quick job aboard a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto, she reaches out. He gives her the “peace” line. Her response? “I think you’re forgetting what you do for a living.”
She ropes him in with the promise of an easy gig. Grab a silver briefcase full of cash and get off at the next stop. “What’s the catch?” “There is no catch,” Beetle says.
Of course, there is a catch. In this kind of movie there is always a catch.
In this case the world’s fastest train is packed with some of the world’s most highly trained killers, and every one of them has some kind of tie to a psychotic crime syndicate boss known as the White Death. “He doesn’t need a reason to kill people like you,” says a passenger. “He needs a reason not to.”
Among them are Cockney killers Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry) and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), The Prince (Joey King), a British assassin posing as a schoolgirl and The Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio), a Mexican murderer with a vendetta against Ladybug.
Cue the darkly comedic action.
For all its high-speed antics, “Bullet Train” feels been-there-done-that. It’s as if Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie met in a head-on collision. Director David Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz borrow elements from both filmmakers, but despite the flash and sass, the quick edits and even quicker quips, their film lacks the gusto of its inspirations. It’s a familiar tale told with flashbacks, revenge motifs, pop culture references—one of the assassins endlessly quotes “Thomas the Tank Engine”—pop songs layered over violent fight scenes and Ninja swords.
It is, I suppose, a great example of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, except other than the reductive script, Leitch doesn’t actually reduce anything. Reuse and recycle, for sure, but the film’s commitment to ultraviolence, sprawling cast and excessive 126-minute running time don’t suggest a reduction of any kind.
Pitt appears to be having fun, but the character’s New Age journey—he’s a nonstop font of “let this be a lesson in the toxicity of anger” style platitudes—grows wearisome and it’s hard to shake the feeling that the actor is revisiting his Cliff Booth character in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s” LSD fight scene. It is a hoot to see him cold-cock a giant Anime character, but his befuddled killer act gets old quickly.
“Bullet Train” is a derailment. It’s a movie with the odd highlight—Lemon and Tangerine’s banter is a hoot—but despite its desperate need to entertain, it ultimately goes off the rails.