Director: David Leitch
Writer: Zak Olkewicz (screenplay), Isaka Kotaro (novel)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Sanada Hiroyuki, Logan Lerman
Producers: Antoine Fuqua, David Leitch, Kelly McCormick
Music: Dominic Lewis
Cinematographer: Jonathan Sela
Editor: Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir
Running time: 126mins
What’s the story: The thief Ladybird (Pitt) is sent aboard a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto to snatch a valuable briefcase. But, also out for the case are a variety of assassins, all with their own motivations. Who will be victorious, and what will be left of them?
What’s the verdict: Here’s something that perhaps needs to be said in hushed tones. The self-seriousness of 2014’s John Wick was never earned. Sure, the filmmakers were clearly poking a bit of fun at stoic action man tropes (all that for his dog?), but that’s pretty much where the humour stopped.
(Uncredited John Wick co-director) David Leitch was also the guy behind the bedlam in the equally chuckle-free Atomic Blonde. But, stints helming Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw clearly reminded him action cinema is frequently at its best when tickling, rather than breaking, the funny bone.
Leitch, along with writer Zak Olkewicz, carry this over to Bullet Train. Together they deliver a first class ride into mayhem, packed with the energy of a Tex Avery cartoon. Honestly, this arrives at just the right moment to restore faith in the slam bang Hollywood action movie. Recent releases Thor: Love and Thunder and The Gray Man were respectively average and awful. While Top Gun: Maverick took everyone’s breath away, I was left with plenty of air in the lungs. I’ll embrace my cancellation…
Brad Pitt brings every watt of his movie star luminosity as a master thief codenamed Ladybird. With a bucket hat and breezy charm, he’s aboard the titular loco to grab a briefcase and scram. Working through life issues, he elects not to carry a gun, but is fully armed with mindfulness aphorisms. E.g., “Hurt people hurt people,” and “When you point the finger of blame, four fingers point back at you. Okay, three in this case.”
Armed and ready for action are Tangerine (Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Henry), two broad accented East London hitmen who are Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent by way of Laurel and Hardy. They’ve been hired to bring home the wayward son (Lerman) of a feared mob boss. Also along for the ride are Kitamura (Koji), looking to avenge a recent terrible wrong, and Prince (King) a promising young woman with more game than she’s given credit for. The old guard is represented by Sanada Hiroyuki as Kitamura’s father, there to deliver vintage action film cool. Elsewhere are cameos aplenty, but for those who haven’t seen the spoilerific trailers, we’ll not ruin the surprises here.
Hi-octane action, slapstick and splatstick violence, fourth wall shattering banter, archly self-conscious narrative-interrupting flashbacks, and achingly cool visuals make Bullet Train a riot of entertainment. It should be as tiresome as anything put out by Brad’s Snatch director, Guy Ritchie.
Rescuing it is a genuine sense of fun in elevating stakes to nose-bleeding heights, comedy beats that hit the right notes, and (an early kill count montage aside) an absence of the mean-spiritedness that stamps Ritchie’s films. You may occasionally flinch at the mayhem (and a specific reptile if you’re phobically inclined), but more often marvel at the choreography brought to the multiple smackdowns. Or the twists and turns that stack up as the film hurtles towards its destination. As with the best train movies (The Lady Vanishes, Silver Streak, Snowpiercer, Train to Busan), the train’s geography is laid out so you can orient (express) yourself amidst the carriage and plot hopping.
Improbably, this is all based on a book, by prolific Japanese author Isaka Kotaro. It is in no way affiliated with the 1975 film Bullet Train, which was the inspiration for Speed, starring John Wick himself. The ’75 Bullet Train featured Sonny Chiba, founder of the Japan Action Club stuntman group, whose alumni includes one Sanada Hiroyuki.
This Bullet Train switches some nationalities in the novel from Japanese to western (notably Pitt’s Ladybird), but is unlikely to draw Ghost in the Shell style controversy. If only because it so lovingly photographs the shinkansen (bullet train), that gorgeous miracle of modern engineering.
For those bemoaning a lack of substance, I posit that Ladybird plays as a riff on Pitt’s Fight Club character if he was more in sway to Edward Norton’s support group addicted narrator. With the universe seemingly out to teach Ladybird a lesson, there is a reading to be had that all this is radical group therapy.
So that’s there if you want it. But, if you’re just after a thrilling journey to Actionville, Bullet Train gets you there in style. Can’t wait to buy a return ticket.