Movie Review ~ Bullet Train (2022)

The Facts:

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
Rated: R
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.

Movie Review ~ The Meg


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After escaping an attack by what he claims was a 70-foot shark, Jonas Taylor must confront his fears to save those trapped in a sunken submersible.

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Cliff Curtis, Sophia Shuya Cai, Masi Oka

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I like sharks.  I like movies.  I like shark movies.  From Jaws to The Shallows to 47 Meters Down, I’m a fan of anything featuring an underwater predator snacking on unsuspecting prey.  Even in lesser known entires like Bait or Shark Night 3D, there’s a certain amount of satisfied fun that comes with these creature features.  Of course, it helps I’m writing this review from the landlocked safety of Minnesota (aka Land of 10,000 Lakes) so these ocean tales of killer sharks don’t dredge up the same fear in me that might plague someone living near the open water.

Steve Alten’s 1997 “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” was tailor made for a screen adaptation.  After spending a solid 20 years in development hell and tossed around by several studios, directors, and stars, The Meg has finally surfaced.  Was it worth the wait?  Did director Jon Turtletaub (While You Were Sleeping) and star Jason Statham (Spy) strike the right balance of fun and fear that made Alten’s original novel (and multiple follow-ups) such a blast?   I can’t say for sure whether or not you’ll go for this sometimes scary, sometimes silly late summer adventure but for someone like me who has waited so long for this sizable shark soup it satisfies a hunger two decades in the making.

Not having read the book in a good decade, I picked up my tattered copy and skimmed the pages before heading out to the screening.  Alten’s no Hemmingway but he manages to take the reader along for a plausible (for 1997) ride to the depths of the ocean where a fish long thought extinct has been living undisturbed for thousands of years.  The screenplay from Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber (Battleship), Erich Hoeber (Red 2) retains elements and a few characters from the novel but alters the action for its star and international supporting cast.

At an underwater research facility in the South China Sea, scientists are using sophisticated underwater submersibles to dive deeper than any human has before.  They hope to prove the existence of another underwater ecosystem thousands of feet below sea level.  Their attempts at a scientific breakthrough instead release a gigantic Megaladon, a shark long since though extinct.  With little time to warn neighboring countries, the crew must track down the deadly shark before she gobbles up throngs of swimmers along the coast.

Reframing Statham’s character Jonas Taylor from a marine biologist to a grizzled deep sea rescue diver allows Statham to do away with the formality of a pretending he’s had a scientific education and clears the way to draw on his brawn to save the day.  Whereas the novel’s Jonas eventually comes into his own set of brass balls, Statham presents as a no-nonsense Hercules from the word go.  He’s nicely matched by Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction) as Suyin, the plucky daughter of the head of research (Winston Chao, The Wedding Banquet) at the scientific laboratory involved with the discovery of the massive shark.  Suyin and Jonas parlay their growing (and nicely unforced) chemistry into believable teamwork as they work together to use their collective bravura to save the day.

While Statham and Bingbing are pleasing leads, Turtletaub has a bit of a mixed bag in the supporting characters.  There’s a whole lot of people popping up and sadly not all of them serve their purpose by becoming fish food by the time the credits roll.  Ruby Rose as a tough scientist and Sophia Shuya Cai as Suyin’s playful daughter fare best while Cliff Cutis (Whale Rider), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and Page Kennedy do what they can with their stock character roles.  The biggest head-scratcher is Rainn Wilson (Cooties) as the egocentric money man behind the entire operation.  Wilson, best known for his brilliant work on The Office is truly miscast here, never funny enough to be comic relief or villainous enough to earn our bloodlust in rooting for him to get tenderized by the shark.

Ah…the shark.  You want to know about the shark, right?  It’s well documented that during the production of Jaws the mechanical shark was prone to breaking down, which gave director Steven Spielberg the challenge of showing less and implying more.  This lead to that movie becoming a classic but also meant for future genre movies using a practical creation was far more difficult than creating a sizable beast using special effects.  I’m fairly sure our titular monster is all CGI and aside from a few sketchy renderings it’s mostly a handsome bit of movie magic that blends seamlessly with the live action.  This leads to some ample scares (jolts more like it) and sustained bits of action, especially in the jam-packed final third of the film.

Where I found the film to be lacking were the moments when the shark wasn’t on screen.  That’s where the screenplay shows it’s flimsiness and resorts to some eye rolling dialogue clearly meant to be judicious exposition.  This being a film largely financed by international producers , there are specific moments that feel like cultural insertions (father-daughter bonds, noble deaths, etc) rather than plot points.  Still, even the dumbest sounding dialogue is delivered with a harmless earnestness that’s easy to forgive.

A pure popcorn extravaganza, The Meg swims ashore this August to take a bite out of the late summer box office and stands a good chance at doing well in the U.S. but even better in foreign markets.  Expect the movie to open big in Asia and take in enough money to generate a sequel – and if it’s handled with the same balance of camp and thrill, I’ll be first in line to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Meg

Synopsis: When a submersible lies disabled at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, an expert deep sea diver is forced to confront his fears and risk everything on a single question: Could the Carcharadon Megalodon – the largest marine predator that ever existed – still be alive and on the hunt?

Release Date: August 10, 2018

Thoughts: This lover of all things (and movies) related to sharks has been waiting for The Meg for almost twenty years.  Based on Steve Alten’s silly but entertaining beach read MEG, the film rights were snapped up right away but the movie took forever to get off the ground due to its sizable budget.  Warner Brothers (the studio behind Deep Blue Sea, the last decent shark flick released theatrically) finally took the plunge, added a “The” to the title, reworked the plot, wisely partnered with an Asian studio to maximize international box office revenue, and in August we’ll see just how well it all  paid off.  This first look at The Meg has plenty of exciting images but also an unexpectedly comedic slant that I’m not quite sure about.  Based on the tongue-in-cheek feel, Jason Statham (Spy) could be a good fit for the leading man but it’s clear that while this one has Jaws in its veins its not angling to take itself too seriously.