After delivering one of the last decades most undoubtedly influential action films in John Wick, it’s not a stretch to say that director David Leitch has made several attempts to recapture the resounding success of his first uber-slick, uber-colorful flick. Following a number of fairly well-received successors in Atomic Blonde and Nobody, Leitch returns with his latest (and perhaps crudest) entry to the modern action genre: Bullet Train. Though hardly the first of its kind, there are enough high-speed action sequences, dizzying plot developments, and memorable characters to put Bullet Train on the more entertaining end of Leitch’s filmography – despite falling into more than a few unfortunate Hollywood cliches.
Starring Brad Pitt as reformed mercenary/wannabe zen guru Ladybug, Bullet Train tells the interwoven stories of five assassins who all unknowingly board the same high-speed Japanese train, and slowly begin to realize that their individual agendas may have more in common than they’d expect. Throw in a handful of colorful personalities, 90s Japanese aesthetic influences, and a healthy dose of grade-A actors, and you’ve got a high-speed uber-violent Agatha Christie mystery on acid.
One the one hand, it’s at times annoyingly transparent that Bullet Train is trying to replicate and latch onto a very specific, recent action movie tone/aesthetic with its colorful cinematography and snappy, quip-filled dialogue. At the same time, though, the film doesn’t give the audience the opportunity to dwell on much of its misgivings – living up to its name, Bullet Train moves at a breakneck pace.
The sheer speed at which the plot moves can be often overwhelming – especially when attempting to keep track of a handful of (literal) Chekov’s guns, venomous snakes, poisoned water bottles, explosive suitcases, and other weapons that move from car-to-car waiting to be used. Nevertheless, the film’s many overlapping plotlines and characters somehow come together in a busy but ultimately neat and tidy end – there’s a surprising order to the utter chaos Ladybug trudges through.
Though much of the film’s acerbic wit and philosophical identity rests in the script from Zak Olkewicz (adapting Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 novel of the same name) the film’s most memorable and endearing moments come from the impressive ensemble cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Bad Bunny, Joey King, and Karen Fukuhara. While some may find the colorfully-costumed and flashback-laden Suicide Squad-style of roster-building frustrating or overdone, the pure talent present in Bullet Train’s ensemble helps the characters move beyond just their plot relevancy and flashy aesthetics.
At the helm, of course, is Brad Pitt’s (ironically named) Ladybug – a mercenary attempting to retire from a life of violence and seek a more peaceful, enlightened path. Unlike most action protagonists, Ladybug isn’t just a “tired old veteran drawn back in against his will” – though he certainly doesn’t want to be on the train, he also doesn’t just fall back into his uber-violent way when things get hairy. There’s a remarkable persistence to his mission for peace that – though repetitive from a comedic perspective – make for an interesting and unpredictable action hero: he genuinely does try (and fail) to avoid violence where possible.
As unconventional and ever-charming as Ladybug is, though, Bullet Train’s unquestionable scene-stealers are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as Tangerine and Lemon, an unlikely but unbreakable dynamic duo of hired guns that almost single handedly make the film worth watching. From the heavy (borderline Guy Ritchie cartoonish) English accents to their neverending banter and Lemon’s constant Thomas the Tank Engine references, the duo pair make for not only the film’s funniest but also the most emotionally potent characters – when push comes to shove, you’re genuinely rooting for these two murderers to make it out alive.
Of course, not every member of the ensemble is as stellar (or even well-utilized) – Joey King is a serviceable but saccharine and redutively feminist (though somewhat self-aware) femme fatale The Prince, and Karen Fukuhara (of The Boys) fame is startlingly underused for an actress of her caliber, especially with her plentiful experience in the action genre. Another more unsurprising (but nonetheless disappointing) ensemble member is Bad Bunny’s Wolf, a one-dimensional cartel baddie whose role in the film is as short lived as it is stereotypical.
Bullet Train also subscribes to another more recent, eye-roll inducing Hollywood action trend: a string of entirely unnecessary celebrity cameos. The film features three: one of which is genuinely enjoyable (the actor in question has a willingness to go all-in on the joke that makes his brief appearances worth more than the surprise), one of which is spoiled by the trailers (I’m looking at you, Sandra Bullock), and the last of which is so predictable and uninspired it feels like a deliberate exercise in banality.
Still, even with a bizarre roster of meaningless cameos and eclectic characters that don’t always work in conjunction, Bullet Train still manages to blend together and end product more than worth the price of admission: a fast-paced, startlingly funny action-mystery with some impressive gore and an unlikely attitude towards fate, morality, and luck. Though more discerning, high-brow viewers may find Bullet Train a less-than-clever exercise in action, anyone looking for a good time would certainly do well buying a ticket to ride.
Sony Pictures will release Bullet Train only in theaters on August 5.
Photo: Scott Garfield