Movie Review: ‘Bullet Train’

Director: David Leitch

Cast: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman

Plot: Various colourful assassins and mercenaries come together on a bullet train travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto on different missions, only to find their goals overlap with each other.

Review: About a year ago we reviewed a movie called Die in a Gunfight and waxed lyrical about it being the kind of thing we wanted to make in film school in an attempt to emulate the works of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Bullet Train brought this experience back to the forefront of our mind as it seems to have spawned from the same niche of modern film history. Right down to freeze-frames to reveal a kooky nickname followed by a stylised flashback to introduce a character, this action roller coaster draws very heavily from the indie gangster movies of the late 90s and early 2000s. Perhaps if it was released in that era, the high-budget used to build the film would have made it a smash. Sadly, it was released now.

Based on a Japanese novel and swapping out all the lead Japanese roles for white people, Bullet Train centres the action on the slick, high speed intercity service. It’s a moving bottle-neck episode with none of the players fully aware of who is hunting who or who is pulling the strings. Our entry point character is ‘Ladybug’ (Pitt), a painfully unlucky assassin easing his way back into the business with a simple theft job. Also boarding in Tokyo is ‘Father’ (Koji), an assassin seeking revenge for an attack on his young son. On board are Lemon and Tangerine (Henry and Taylor-Johnson) are escorting a crimelord’s son (Lerman) back to his father while wearing suits and chatting inanely about Thomas the Tank Engine. We also have Prince (King), an assassin posing as a young girl to manipulate people. On the way we’ll get introduced to other characters, but you’ve got the general idea. They have funny names, have a gimmick and…well, that’s all there is to them.

This is the biggest sticking point of the movie. The characters have colourful gimmicks and costumes, but they’re not interesting. None of them have any apparent motivation for us to get behind, they’re just a crazy collection of idiots bouncing off each other. Father has a clear and straight forward motivation – revenge for the attack that left his son in hospital – but he’s gone from a major player in the story to supporting cast (possibly as punishment for not being white enough). We never see him spending any time with this child, so he might as well be getting revenge for a stolen wallet for all we care. The rest are just there to complete their job, many being left unsaid as it serves the building mystery, and it’s hard to care about who’s going to walk away at the end. It’s unclear who we’re supposed to be backing until about halfway through, and some of the key characters don’t turn up at all until the finale.

With such shallow story and characters, we’re left with the style. As said before, the style seems to be an amalgamation of trends from 20 years prior. There’s a recurring discussion about good luck and bad luck being a matter of perspective, with the ‘luck’ being shown through slow-motion CGI action sequences, but this feels entirely lifted from the director’s previous film Deadpool 2. He even brought Zazie Beetz along with the design choice.

We thought this would be a good, fun, energetic time but it felt like a slog. For every moment we liked there’d be a long wait for something else interesting or unique to happen. During that time we’re left to wonder why no-one else on the train notices things like fist-fights, gunshots, people openly walking around carrying guns, trails of blood, damage to the train including emergency exits being opened occurring around them. There’s never any panic or people getting off the train…they mostly just sit there. Maybe if the movie was more engaging we wouldn’t have paid attention to all the background actors.

Oh, quick edit…there’s a deus ex machina, complete with stylistic backstory, involving a bottled water product placement. Not a great look. We understand why you need it and we can turn a blind eye if you try and keep it subtle.

Rating: THREE out of TEN