Directed by David Leitch
Written by Zak Olkewicz (based on the novel Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka)
While I've unfortunately fallen more and more into a mode of reviewing that's childishly belligerent—"am I out of touch? no, it's you morons who are wrong"—Bullet Train offers a chance to correct that a little, because I do get why people didn't like it: it's founded upon a screenplay that's about half as clever and witty as it thinks it is, and while I think it makes a good go at being a turn-of-the-2000s throwback (I might later say something like, "it's the most successful turn-of-the-2000s movie since the turn of the 2000s"), the particular styles it's throwing back to were abandoned for a reason, only cool for about a minute back at the change of the millennium, and difficult to resurrect unironically now, in no small part because they were kind of ironic in the first place even when they were plied with x-treme sincerity. And I don't know what to say, except this is all what I liked about it.
There are other objections I agree with more, and I really can't argue with the proposition that the movie is somewhere between ten and thirty minutes too long, insofar as at a certain point about halfway through its third act (to the extent its realtime screenplay has meaningful "acts," which I don't mean as a criticism) its action opens up and its scale expands to the point that it has to have been a disastrous studio note or something, because it's completely dissonant with what came before (and pretty dumb on its merits). There's a third set of objections that I'm agnostic about, coming from the fanbase that its maker David Leitch has developed over the last decade, who are annoyed that the co-director of John Wick and director of Atomic Blonde, the latter still his best movie, has seen it more fit to remake in various forms Deadpool 2, his most successful movie, since getting his name onto the A-list. I may, indeed, be less than just agnostic about this, for one thing because Bullet Train represents something like a hybrid of his previous career peaks (like Deadpool 2, it's foremost a comedy we're dealing with, but, like Atomic Blonde, it's also a twisty thriller plot that takes more pleasure in the fact of being twisty than it does in untangling itself in a clear manner). It's also because, in terms of being an action-comedy, it's a better action-comedy than Deadpool 2, in every instance able to better rely on well-executed visual and dialogue gags and offbeat character dynamics, rather than banking almost everything on Ryan Reynolds's desperate patter. I'd better change tacks, because if I have to acknowledge that people actually do find Deadpool 2 funnier than Bullet Train it'll knock me right back into childish belligerence and my usual thrashing, toxic manner.
Likewise attempting to rid himself of negative vibes is our hero (Brad Pitt), an operator presently in Japan, and working under the codename "Ladybug," a sobriquet given to him, he reckons, because of the pretty beetle's association with luck in Japanese culture. (I don't know if this is truer in Japan than in any other culture—cute, harmless, and useful, ladybugs are widely-liked—but the movie definitely believes it is.) Ladybug has of late been worn down by what he perceives to be a long string of bad luck, and is on the assassin equivalent of reduced workload at the recommendation of his therapist, and so has been given the simplest mission that the voice in his ear, his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock), could find for him, a nonviolent job where he's tasked solely with stealing a briefcase from the baggage aboard a train on the Tokaido high speed rail line between Tokyo and Kyoto.
As this briefcase belongs to two other assassins, siblings "Tangerine" (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and "Lemon" (Brian Tyree Henry), it's not as simple as Ladybug had hoped. Things become more convoluted still given that they're currently ferrying the son of the infamous yakuza boss, the so-called "White Death," back from a successful rescue, their briefcase being full of the ransom money which they also retrieved. This is somehow related to Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), a yakuza underling lured aboard the train in order to get revenge for his son, recently the victim of a murder attempt, and this is somehow related to a young woman in babydoll attire (Joey King), though it's initially quite unclear if any of these things are also related to the arrival of the Wolf (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio), an assassin with a profound grudge against Ladybug for past sins, or the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), a poisoner. Furthermore, amongst Ladybug's antagonists there numbers, quite hilariously, a snake; and while I don't think he ever reaches his full potential given that he genuinely is not any part of this plot—more's the pity!—there's also a testy conductor (Masi Oka), who scowls at Ladybug a lot in funny ways because, in a bit of that bad luck he was talking about, he lost his ticket.
That's kind of a lot, but being "a lot" is the point: the way these characters careen off one another, almost invariably with bloodshed, all introduced in Leitch's pastiche of turn-of-the-2000s style with a showy freeze-frame and a Mountain Dew font in giant letters that announces their nommes de guerre, albeit sometimes only for them to get murdered by one of the others by the end of the same scene. And this is all, to be blunt about it, incredibly fun.
But since I've indicated the movie has its salient negatives, we could start with that—the negative is honestly easier to describe, and I earnestly wonder sometimes if that could be a factor for bad reviews of movies like this, given that the reviews have to be dashed off in an hour, rather than written in the ripeness of thought and time (oh, there I go, being toxic again)—and so let's visit first with that conductor who vanishes from the movie, since he's kind of a symbol for one thing maybe not entirely wrong with Bullet Train, but certainly very weird about Bullet Train, in that it does have a profoundly empty quality to it. I don't mean that, necessarily, in terms of emotion or psychology (for while by no means is it more than puddle-deep, I don't really care). I mean this in purely aesthetic terms: its vision of a train on the Tokaido high speed rail line between Tokyo and Kyoto is exclusively one of an action playset populated almost exclusively by Leitch's action figures. There is, occasionally, an interaction with a civilian; there are a few jokes about and some lip-service occasionally paid to the idea that our protagonists' business must be conducted quietly; and there are sometimes extras alongside them on the train. But this isn't very strongly insisted-on, and it becomes even less insisted-on as the story proceeds and finally explicitly dispensed with altogether. Even to the extent that the citizenry of Japan actually exist in Leitch's universe, which isn't much, they are NPCs utterly disinterested in the havoc around them. I could maybe respect this more if it ever seemed like it was intended to resemble Japan's own popular genre of train molester porn, only now with murders being studiously ignored rather than gropings, but it's definitely not an overt joke or anything.
It's still fine, I guess, though it's also lazy, never marshalling much effort to figure out how to do action/thriller sequences amidst a large crowd, avoiding this responsibility by never marshalling the crowd in the first place, and it eventually becomes a slight distraction from the mood: it's supposed to be cartoonish, but it can sometimes feel sepulchral. This isn't necessarily helped by the CGI, though there are exertions here to turn that disadvantage into a strength, as Bullet Train openly announces the greenscreen fakeness of its landscapes, platforms, cityscapes, etc. (rendered mostly as a series of empty flat images "multiplaned" with digital software), and this is, for all that it's slightly ugly, surprisingly successful at creating a space for violent, comic nonsense, though it's also so simplistic in its stylization that I'm possibly remembering it as even worse than it actually is. It is successful, anyway, until it very, very suddenly isn't: that climax demands you accept a whole lot more cartoonishness than anything else to have come before, so that the previous least believable moment (a character managing to smash his way back into the train even while it's picking up speed) looks in retrospect entirely reasonable. It does this in slow motion, to boot, so you have all the time in the world to consider how unpersuasively rendered it is and how unlikely its physics are.
The good news is this all barely matters. Leitch's interest here is more in setting his action scenes inside of rectangular boxes, constraining his action figures' possibilities to a meter or so on either side of a single line that, depending on the shot, either crosses the horizontal of the frame or extends throughout the depth of a train car, often re-complicating things with props (sometimes weapons, sometimes maguffins) and other set elements, and forcing the action into staccato rhythms that are self-evidently "kewl" but are also usually very funny in the way Leitch choreographs them, each little physical gag scaffolding up into big physical gags. All of it tends to force the characters into staying on their own side of the frame, rendering even their most violent confrontations as conversations-by-other-means, which is arguably what the film is about more than it is the action itself. Which is the other, far more substantial way that the turn-of-the-2000s pastiche makes itself apparent: I would, I think, quibble with the kneejerk comparison to Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, but maybe I shouldn't, as Bullet Train yearns desperately for you to make that comparison, and obviously, it's an appropriate comparison; but while Tarantino and Ritchie are easy landmarks because they're the household names, I might proximately locate its biggest influence just as much in an intermediary, Matthew Vaughn. (Between the bad/stylized CGI and the whole "I wish Saturday morning cartoons were more like ultraviolent anime" ethos, this thing has enormous levels of Kingsman: The Secret Service energy, which Vaughn has subsequently demonstrated is one hellaciously hard thing to get right, and, happily, Leitch does get it right.)
Anyway, the not-as-clever-or-as-witty-as-it-thinks-it-is screenplay is, nevertheless, where the movie shines like a diamond. Basically, its characters are simply very funny, especially if you're willing to take them within the confines of their gimmicks. The secondary cast is effectively all gimmick, though not for that reason less likeable. Taylor-Johnson and Henry's Tangerine & Lemon frequently threaten to steal the movie (bizarrely, Tangerine & Lemon are the vector for by far the film's most genuine feelings, too). This is despite a characterization that tops out at "Lemon is an off-puttingly huge fan of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, who sees the entire world and all human relationships through a prism of anthropomorphized trains," and their mutual characterization does top out there, inasmuch as Tangerine's gimmick isn't much more than "finding his brother's Thomas fandom tedious and enervating," though I'm gratified indeed to see Taylor-Johnson play any character with personality again. And, yes, I know: "in the midst of violent skullduggery, characters contemplate unusual aspects of pop culture" is the most post-Tarantino thing imaginable, so the comparison really is appropriate—but damn it, it's awfully bright and amusing. That's the case pretty much throughout Zak Olkewicz's screenplay, which likewise allows Leitch to indulge in some breakneck tonal shifts and a whole bunch of stabby little mini-movie music video flashbacks set to nominal deep cuts (both of these filips would likewise be turn-of-the-2000s hallmarks, and besides the "we hard men shall now talk seriously about children's cartoons" stuff, the latter one is maybe the most turn-of-the-2000s thing about it).
They do, nonetheless, only threaten to steal the show, which is never in serious danger of being too completely wrenched away from Pitt's Ladybug, who's one of the more appealing characters of this year's whole crop of popcorn cinema. Leitch, in his previous life as a stuntman, apparently made friends with the man he routinely stunt-doubled for, and that's a blessing, because Ladybug is such a perfect Brad Pitt Character: kind of stupid in a specifically West Coast way and at all times easily-confused, weirdly poorly-dressed (like all good action-adventure characters, he can be reduced to his silhouette, though this one wears a bucket hat), and very eager to tell you that he's pursuing a path of spiritual enlightenment that, at some bottom level, probably is sincere, but due to the aforementioned West Coast stupidity, feels phony and dumb. It's a reluctant killer type we've seen plenty of times, but in the specific way this Brad Pitt Character has been written and performed, it becomes something wonderfully novel, a rampaging parody of self-help-speak, Internet-based self-analysis, and attempts at de-escalatory conflict resolution, that, when set against the blood and the guts and the fact that five or six top-tier murderers want him dead, is never anything less than a complete delight.
The screenplay does want, unfortunately, to attempt themes, and for the most part this isn't even done with too much heavy-handedness, it's just dragged out and referred to too many times, no doubt partly as a result of the mess the climax becomes (I'm a little annoyed that the much smaller denouement regarding these themes of fate and self-determination, seemingly promised by a master villain who always plays Russian roullette before beginning any major confrontation, is obviated in favor of CGI trains flying around idiotically, along with some more conventional resolutions). And there comes a time when the plot simplifies itself, in ways I earnestly don't know if it benefits from.
The one thing that legitimately degrades it in my eyes, even more than the too-big finale—I surely could've rated this goofy lark even higher—is that eventually, it starts going backsies on the thing I liked the most about it. That's one last turn-of-the-2000s hallmark, its apparent willingness to brutally cut short these little dramas, so that at certain moments Bullet Train just outright shocks you, because it's not clear, in those moments, how it might still manage to wrap itself up without this character or that character still being around. It turns out it manages quite well, if rather dishonorably—not entirely unfairly, in some circumstances, but there are enough deaths that don't take that I can't be entirely sure, without tallying them, that a majority of them actually do. And I guess I could complain that it doesn't have a decade-defining action setpiece the way that Atomic Blonde did, though, as in every case its action is well-handled and exciting, I won't. I'll be content with what we got, which is a pleasurable little popcorn movie without much on its mind besides the desire to entertain you for a couple of hours with some of the more sharply-drawn wacky characters the action genre's been capable of in years. Some of the aforementioned problems might impact the old rewatchability, but I'm trying to think of a recent movie that actually combines action and comedy this well, with the proportions of action and comedy tilted this far toward the latter. I can't really come up with one.