I used “annoyingly fun” to describe Bullet Train because I don’t know what other oxymoron can best capture the delirium that transpired in its two-hour runtime. I’d be lying if I said I was immediately hooked on the film as it went along. The chimpanzee-with-a-machine-gun editing and chaotic evil exposition dumps were occasionally off-putting, to say the least. The film’s penchant for animated neon title cards drew it dangerously close to Suicide Squad (2016) territory (thankfully, we were spared from the constant needle-drops). I’m also not sure if its sprawling Japanese backstory, Bolivian massacre tangent, and Russian family soap opera neatly fit together as a whole.
But, about halfway through the film, the cleverness buried underneath all of its mess slowly unearthed itself. It’s not “clever” in the usual sense, it’s a certain kind of cleverness that’s so dumb it’s smart. Bullet Train is transparent about its lackluster depth. It operates in a small window of polarities, routinely switching between “distracting” and “playful,” like a child banging together toys from completely different brands and categories. A samurai, a Momonga mascot, a deadly snake, and a Mexican assassin collide in a Japanese bullet train LEGO set. Stuntman-turned-director David Leitch is the orchestrator of this playdate, and he has decided to deal cruel, sometimes ironic, twists of fate on his characters, resulting in a crowd-pleasing romp once it shuts up and lets the action do the talking.
Based on the Japanese novel Maria Beetle (published as Bullet Train in English) written by Kōtarō Isaka, the film wastes no time translating the hitman-on-a-train conceit that made the source material engaging. The main difference is the tone; wherein the book is decidedly a thriller, the film has its eyes set on turning its A-list stars into relatable quirky leads — albeit to varying degrees of success — in a fast-paced action comedy.
Brad Pitt plays Ladybug, an American assassin tasked by his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), to obtain a briefcase traveling in a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Inside this colorful location is a caravan of high-class criminals looking to fulfill their own personal assignments while dealing with the ruptures of fate. Along the ride are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), the British hitman duo. They both find themselves in the middle of comical situations, with the latter having an obsession with Thomas & Friends.
The ensemble cast also includes Joey King as an assassin passing off as a schoolgirl, Bad Bunny as a vengeful Mexican executioner, and Zazie Beetz as a venomous killer. Other actors involved include Logan Lerman, Michael Shannon, Andrew Koji, and Hiroyuki Sanada. That’s not counting the numerous cameos that certainly give away the fact that the film was shot around the same time The Lost City and The Adam Project were in production. Director Leitch, seemingly interested in all his toys and their novel-like backstories, bites off more than he can chew. The opening half of the film is excruciating since it feels the need to show, tell, demonstrate, and do just about everything in its power to grab the audience by the neck and pour everything they need to know, all at once. Some are character-based and clearly made for stylistic choices, and others are set-ups for comedic punchlines that can be hit-or-miss. It’s almost as if the film is afraid that the attention span of viewers will scurry away unless it cuts to a shiny animation.
Pitt, as the lead character, seems like a no-brainer. His strength is in his laidback charm – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showed that (and won him an Oscar). By doing close to nothing and letting his mellow and inoffensive attitude take centerstage, he captures a zen-like personality that sits squarely in between the spectrum of John Wick and Deadpool (which, coincidentally, are characters the director has had his hands on). The best part of the film, which rears its head in the second half, is when it’s slowly revealed that Pitt’s character is caught in a storm that he wants no part of; he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.