Synopsis: A trained killer wants to give up the life but is pulled back in by his handler to collect a briefcase on a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. Onboard the train, he and other competing assassins discover their objectives are all connected.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Bad Bunny, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Karen Fukuhara, Masi Oka, Sandra Bullock
Director: David Leitch
Running Length: 126 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Hard to believe it, but I’m writing this in the last few hours on the first day of August. The summer days are already starting to creep to a close, and soon so will our ferocious summer movie season, the first full-throttle one in a post-pandemic climate. It’s been a wild journey of ups (The Black Phone) and downs (Thor: Love and Thunder), unexpected surprises (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), and confirmed bullseyes (Top Gun: Maverick), and you can’t say the stars haven’t come out to play. We have an entire season of fall movies and awards hopefuls getting their party attire on, but until then, Summer 2022 still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Thankfully, August starts at breakneck speed with the rowdy fun of Bullet Train.
Based on Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 Japanese novel, Bullet Train might look on the surface as a star vehicle for Oscar winner Brad Pitt, but fans of the novel know there’s more to the story than we have been led to believe. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz has maintained much of Isaka’s source material, keeping the multiple story threads in place and allowing director David Leitch to tug on them when needed. There’s a shared spotlight often throughout the film, encompassing Pitt and an eclectic mix of characters on board a high-speed commuter train bound for danger. Once you get on Bullet Train, two hours of non-stop action don’t give you much time to breathe or think about the number of implausibilities on the trip.
A skilled hitman (Pitt, Ad Astra) has rejoined the ranks after taking time away to work on finding inner peace. Newly Zen and working the steps his therapy has given him, he’s more conflicted and cerebral than shoot first and asks questions later. His handler, Maria Beetle (an Oscar-winning actress whose identity isn’t a secret if you’ve seen the trailer but might be if you haven’t), has lined him up for a quick job to fill in for a sick agent. Armed with the codename Ladybug and a handful of innocuous carry-on pocket items, he hops on the train as directed.
This setup isn’t actually how the film opens. We’ve already met another set of characters (each person is identified through onscreen title cards), and while their initial involvement with the story may not make sense, the voyage will eventually plot out exactly how they figure into the curveball-friendly plot. It’s another reason why avoiding the trailer at all costs would be worth your while. With its Agatha Christie on Red Bull fondness for pulling the rug out from under you, one has to wonder why the marketing for Bullet Train has given so much away. Images, characters, and sequences in the preview have spoiled some developments (and nearly all of one actor’s scenes), and I would want to know how much more of a guessing-game experience this could have been, having known less going in.
Ladybug has been asked to retrieve a simple silver briefcase. It isn’t that hard to locate…but it turns out that getting off the train is the difficult part of this mission. Every time Ladybug tries to exit, something blocks him in one way or another. As we meet the other interested parties, we also learn their backstories of how they wound up on the train. There’s a pair of ‘twin’ killers, Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry, Eternals) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, The King’s Man), who bicker like brothers but take different approaches to suss out who might be sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong.
They have their work cut out for them because there’s no shortage of killers of the elusive and out-in-the-open variety. The Prince (Joey King, The Conjuring) is a UK schoolgirl dressed head-to-toe in pink who, spoiler alert, isn’t as innocent as she looks. Mexican assassin The Wolf (Bad Bunny, F9: The Fast Saga) and Japanese father Kimura (Andrew Koji, Fast & Furious 6) bought a ticket seeking revenge above all else. At the same time, The White Death (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water) gradually becomes a presence that haunts the entire lot the closer the train inches to his compound. And there’s a snake too. Plus a few more secrets I can’t tell you about (though the trailer has! I won’t!)
As Pitt’s former stunt double, Leitch knows his leading man quite well and stages blistering action sequences in which Pitt and others can engage. As he did with Atomic Blonde, Leitch choreographs some terrific blazingly brutal fights performed so rapidly that the eye-bulging violence tends not to land as harshly. Things get overly CGI-y anytime the actors move outside the train (the film was shot on a studio lot, old-school Hollywood style, and looks like it), but the production design, on the whole, is pleasing. How all of this mayhem can occur with no one else noticing is beyond my imagination, as is one superhuman stunt that doesn’t feel remotely plausible. When the movie stretches into sheer lunacy, this Train gets away from everyone involved.
It’s good that this cast is so eager to play, then. Pitt is lively and engaged, perfectly cast (despite protestations over his character from the novel being changed from Japanese to American) as a man with a past comically trying to stay alive while coming to grips with his involvement in the violent extermination of life. His stunt work is spot-on, and nothing seems out of his range. The second MVP has to be awarded to Henry, delivering once again as half of a dastardly duo that is just as willing to kill as his brother but prefers to be sure before he does. Olkewicz (Fear Street: Part Two – 1978) gives Henry room to explore his character, maybe more than others riding the same transport speeding along the railway. Taylor-Johnson feels like he’s stepped out of Bullet Train 1974…and that’s not a bad thing. It’s always nice to see Hiroyuki Sanada (Army of the Dead), and fans shouldn’t be worried if he seems underused early on.
The brakes get yanked right off in the last twenty minutes when the filmmakers choose a spectacle finale instead of one that follows through with the layered storytelling they had been using. As fun as the editing was (and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, Contraband, should be commended), it started to feel like everyone involved just lost control of the movie. The effects become unwieldy, the performances grow stale, and the comedy feels forced. Even the last few shots of the film don’t ring quite true, a disappointing final destination to what had been a jet-fueled ride on a Bullet Train.