Brad Pitt action flick goes off the rails
Leitch’s uneven high-speed thriller pits Pitt against… well, everyone
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Super-quick, hyper-quirky, cartoonishly violent and garishly good-looking, this comedy-action flick works as idiotic fun but ultimately self-sabotages by trying too hard to be clever.
Adapting the book by Kotaro Isaka, director David Leitch (who’s worked on the John Wick and Fast & Furious franchises) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street) have produced a fast, frictionless ride. But they’re travelling on familiar tracks laid down by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.
Brad Pitt is in relaxed, scruffy, low-key movie-star mode as an assassin — codename Ladybug — who’s just come back from a professional break that involved working on his personal growth. The world is getting “the new and improved me,” he announces happily to his handler (voiced by a star to be revealed later). He’s brim-full of self-actualization and fuzzy-wuzzy spiritual aphorisms (“If you put peace out in the world, you get peace back”), but he’s also surrounded by people who are trying to punch, stab, poison and/or shoot him. That’s the central joke here, and it’s intermittently funny but way overworked.
Ladybug has requested a simple job for his return to work, and he’s scheduled to get on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, pick up a shiny briefcase for an unknown client and get off. Sounds easy, except the train is packed with a collection of rando international criminals — a Yakuza killer (Andrew Koji), a Russian mobster (Logan Lerman), a Mexican cartel heir (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny), two wonderfully incompetent British blokes (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), an enigmatic freelancer (Zazie Beetz) and a lethal “schoolgirl” (Joey King) — and they all want that mystery case. Add in some coy uncredited cameos, a big-headed anime mascot and a stray venomous snake, and there’s a lot going on.
While all these characters initially seem unrelated, they’re actually enmeshed in a web of intricately interconnected, Final Destination-style events. There’s a lot of discussion in Bullet Train of destiny and fate (for the fancy talkers) or just plain good and bad luck. Ladybug, for instance, is renowned for possessing not just bad luck but “bad luck on acid.”
That’s the film’s rudimentary philosophy, but most of the runtime involves action. The fight scenes are sometimes slow-mo, sometimes quick-cut, sometimes filmed at drunken angles, almost always choreographed to offbeat versions of popular songs. Oddly, despite a history of train movies going back to the silent era, Leitch doesn’t do a lot to capitalize on his setting, which is long, narrow and moving at 320 km/h — at least until the end of the picture.
The train-contained action is broken up by off-site flashbacks, most of which are baroque tableaux of death and destruction and spurting arterial blood, all presented as cheerfully violent fun.
In a nod to Tarantino, the criminals also tend to be chatty, with breaks for semi-comic conversations about Japanese smart toilets, Thomas the Tank Engine and whether the word “whacked” should be brought back into underworld discourse.
Pitt, simultaneously relying on and playing against his movie-star persona as the hapless Ladybug, is able to navigate this tonal weirdness. The rest of the movie struggles, though. With banter that can feel forced and quirk that can feel self-conscious, Bullet Train isn’t as charming as it thinks it is, and this more than two-hour train ride eventually starts to drag.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.