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"Bullet Train" is an action film that could easily have been an animated movie, and often looks and feels like one. The story takes place on a bullet train careening across Japan, but most of the movie was shot on green-screened sets, and the cityscapes and countrysides that the train rides through are mainly miniatures and CGI. Its characters are a touch abstract as well, and knowingly comic-bookish. All are either paid killers or otherwise violent individuals connected with the world of crime, and the majority either have grudges against one of the other characters or are the object of a grudge and trying to escape the consequences of past actions. They tend to have tragic-sentimental backstories or be purely malevolent—and inevitably, 30 years after the great Tarantino realignment of the early nineties, most of them are chatterboxes who will monologue at anyone who doesn't point a gun at their head and order them to shut up, and the tone mixes winking black comedy and poker-faced pulp.
Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, a former assassin ordered to board the train, steal a briefcase, and get off. He's replacing another assassin who became unavailable at the last minute, and he refuses his handler's advice to carry a gun because he just got out of anger management and has renounced killing. Ladybug's fellow killers are a bomber crew of homicidal oddballs. Joey King is "The Prince," who poses as an innocent schoolgirl appalled by the cruelty of men, but immediately reveals herself as a clever and ruthless engine of destruction. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who's groomed to look like the evil drunk Begbie from the original "Trainspotting") are brothers who have gone from mission to mission racking up a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and now find themselves on the train protecting the briefcase and escorting the depressed twentysomething wastrel son (Logan Lerman) of a terrifying crime boss known as the White Death.
The White Death is a Russian who took over a Yakuza family. His face isn't shown until the end of the story (it's more fun for the audience to resist Googling who plays him, because his casting is one of the best surprises in the whole thing). Hiroyuki Sanada is "The Elder," a greying but still lethal assassin connected to the White Death, and Andrew Koji is "The Father"—The Elder's son, obviously; they're out for vengeance because somebody pushed The Elder's grandson off a department store roof, putting him in a coma. They believe the person responsible is on the train, mingling with all the other agents of death.
The plot initially seems goal-driven, revolving around the comatose grandson and the metal briefcase. But as the script adds new fighters to the mix, and establishes that they're all tangentially connected, "Bullet Train" morphs into a half-assed but sincere statement on fate, luck, and karma—and Ladybug's constant (and often humorously annoying) comments on those subjects, voiced in discussions through a handler (Sandra Bullock's Maria Beetle, heard via earpiece), start to feel like an instruction manual for grokking what the movie is "actually" up to. (Ladybug is kind of a post-credits Jules from "Pulp Fiction" after repudiating violence, but he's still stuck in the life, and it has become more challenging because he has resolved never to pick up a gun again.)
Characters are given the sorts of typeface-onscreen-followed-by-flashback-montage introductions that genre fans will recognize from directors like Quentin Tarantino ("Kill Bill" seems to be a primary influence) and Guy Ritchie (who pioneered a particular brand of "lad action" in which verbal insults become little fists and knives deployed against enemies). The fighters go after each other with guns, knives, their fists, and whatever object they can get their hands on (the briefcase gets a workout as both a defensive weapon and a bludgeon). They banter as they struggle, and sometimes when one of them dies, the tone will shift into a maudlin lament that is often affecting because of the cast's skill, but that doesn't inspire deep emotion since the rest of the movie is so glib and superficial.
The film is directed by David Leitch, a former stunt coordinator and screen double for Jean-Claude Van Damme and this film's star, Brad Pitt, and the onetime directing partner of Chad Stahleski (of the "John Wick" series). He's become a specialist in high-grade acrobatic mayhem, having directed "Deadpool 2," "Atomic Blonde," and "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw." It's hard to deny that he's one the best when it comes to overseeing this type of production—and it's sometimes a kick seeing "Bullet Train" lean into its knowingly ridiculous visuals, which sometimes verge on the psychedelia conjured in "Speed Racer."
But whether this type of project is entirely worth doing is a different matter. It seems to want to have it both ways, telling us "this is all light and silly and none of it is of any consequence" and at the same time trying to whack us across the throat with a moment of dramatic power so that we cry for the characters. Henry and Taylor-Johnson's story gets there, due to the love expressed between the brothers even when they're breaking each other's chops, and the performances of the two actors have a direct connection with the audience despite boasting Cockney accents that might not pass muster in a college production of "My Fair Lady." (The greatest achievement in the film is that Henry manages to take his character's relentless comparison of everyone else to Thomas the Tank Engine characters, and make you not loathe the gimmick on general principle.)
But the rest feels forced and insincere. "Bullet Train" is at its best when it's a comedy about self-styled badasses who think they're free agents but are really all just passengers on a train rocketing from one station to another, oblivious to the desires of any individual riding on it. The abstractness and "it's all a lark" humor ultimately undo any aspect that might otherwise sink its roots into the viewer's mind.
The project is abstract in another way as well: the script's source is a Japanese novel by Kōtarō Isaka, and the characters were Japanese. Leitch and company—who inherited the project from Antoine Fuqua, who had wanted to make a less jokey "Die Hard on a Train"-type film—have recast the tale "internationally," starting with Leitch's longtime screen partner Pitt. They had reportedly considered relocating the story to Europe, but decided to keep the Japanese setting anyway, and have defended this on grounds that "Bullet Train" is a fantastical film that could be set anywhere and is basically taking place nowhere.
The explanation doesn't wash, considering how dependent "Bullet Train" is on Japanese signifiers and cultural attitudes (King's character is basically an anime "schoolgirl" avatar come to life)—not to mention essentially deracinating all of the core characters save for a handful of stereotypical Yakuza, who have been given a Russian chieftain modeled on Keyser Söze from "The Usual Suspects." Even in a fantasy, the latter seems a stretch, although the actors all sell it like the professionals they are. If nothing in the movie is real—either as a justification for the casting, or as a guiding aesthetic—why not just go full "Speed Racer" or "The Matrix" with it, and own the green-screeness of the entire project, and set it in the future on another planet, or in an alternate dimension? It's practically a Marvel superhero movie anyway, except that the characters can't come back to life after being killed off. The result might've been a delirious work of art, instead of a technically and logistically ambitious movie that doesn't leave much of an emotional or intellectual footprint.
Now playing in theaters.
Brad Pitt as Ladybug
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Tangerine
Brian Tyree Henry as Lemon
Joey King as The Prince
Zazie Beetz as The Hornet
Bad Bunny as The Wolf
Andrew Koji as Kimura
Michael Shannon as The White Death
Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder
Sandra Bullock as Maria Beetle