Bullet Train takes the squib-splattering mayhem of Quentin Tarantino and mashes it up with the physics of Wile E. Coyote and the soundtrack of an overserved Japanese karaoke bar. Add Brad Pitt in front of a solid cast, and the result should be a much better movie than what we have here. Instead of primo junk food cinema, we get an overlong, overwrought mess, piled high with corpses, but low on emotional stakes. This is a feast without flavor.
As the title suggests, most of the film’s shenanigans take place on a barreling bullet train, en route from Tokyo to Kyoto. Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) populates his world like one of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, where there aren’t many people, but all of them are morally sketchy. Pitt plays Ladybug, the central character on this rolling crime scene. Like every hitman protagonist in every movie, Ladybug is in spiritual crisis. A lifetime of killing is beginning to take its toll.
For such a convoluted movie, Ladybug’s mission is surprisingly simple: Find a silver case aboard the train, and return it to its owner. The only problem? A disparate group of lowlifes are also prowling around the cars, looking for the exact same thing. These include Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), foster brothers who spend most of the movie swapping low-grade Tarantino riffs. The Prince (Joey King) is a sociopathic schoolgirl who uses her dewy doe eyes to talk herself out of trouble and turn the other killers against each other. At the same time, she extorts a fellow assassin (Andrew Koji) by holding his young son hostage.
It soon becomes clear that these assorted murderers aren’t assembled by chance. The White Death (Michael Shannon, looking a lot like Tarantino’s Bill, with a dash of frizzy-haired Karen to make it weird) is an underworld kingpin in the mold of Keyser Sozé. It seems that White Death has done a lot of these characters wrong, and some of them might want to return the favor.
From that setup, we get a frenzied cacophony–a blood-spattered hedge maze at 200MPH. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapting from Kōtarō Isaka’s novel) twists and bends his plot, sometimes against its will. Backstories and betrayals race by at breakneck speed, making Bullet Train feel unnecessarily confusing at times. Some scenes will require you to power down your brain, or else be crushed on the tracks.
And that’s mostly okay, as all of this busy plot is just an excuse for claustrophobic brawls and blood-soaked gun battles. Leitch (Deadpool 2, and the Hobbs and Shaw vomit comet) stages these scenes with flair and humor. Pitt and Taylor-Johnson, in particular, have such a nice interplay, it’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t expand on it. That goes ditto for King, whose performance has enough charisma to support its own movie.
Taken on its own, Bullet Train isn’t a bad flick. Pieces of it are very entertaining: Pitt’s superstar persona has taken on the relaxed fit of a tattered pair of Levis, almost to the point that he makes being Brad Pitt look easy. His Ladybug is a shambling killer, and the film invites us to laugh with and at him. And I loved the audacious originality of the soundtrack, which chucks in Japanese versions of “Stayin’ Alive” and “Holding Out for a Hero.” For better or worse, you’re gonna get both stuck in your head. As a bonus, there are three big celebrity cameos. Two of them are funny, and I’ll let you work out which.
I guess the biggest knock on this Train pain is how familiar everything feels. The film Xeroxes from a dozen better movies, but most of the magic gets lost in the transfer. Yes, Tarantino built a career out of imitating other directors, but his cinematic quilts came out looking like something only he could stitch. (Even Jackie Brown, his weakest effort, takes an Elmore Leonard novel and remakes it into something wholly different.) More than anything, Bullet Train does a great job making the films that inspired it look that much better.
126 min. R. On demand.
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