Bullet Train hits theaters on August 5, 2022.
David Leitch’s Bullet Train takes itself as seriously as Crank, Smokin’ Aces or Shoot ‘Em Up; that is a recommendation or a warning. The filmmaker of John Wick and Atomic Blonde translates his kind of electro-magnetic action with all the weirdness of prime action movies from the 2000s. Compared to Netflix’s The Gray Man, it’s a beacon of hope that American action can be both colorful and chaotic. – Bullet Train is the movie that deserves Chris Evans’ The Gray Man performance, honestly. It’s far from bulletproof, and the action-comedy elements don’t always come to the fore, but there’s still enough spunk and humility to keep the good times rolling.
Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapts Kôtarô Isaka’s Japanese novel of the same name with blatant post-Pulp Fiction vibes. Brad Pitt stars as a hit man codenamed “Ladybug” who returns to action for what should be a simple smash-and-snatch target. This promised convenience leads to the humor of the film, as Ladybug encounters many unforeseen obstacles. Rival killers smash their tickets, exotic reptiles escape cages, and Ladybug is convinced his bad luck will never end as he hunts for the package in his grasp. There’s no such thing as a surefire win, which Ladybug learns the hard way as bodies increase and his distaste for firearms becomes an increasing disadvantage.
Bullet Train isn’t just Pitt’s comedy shooting range, though. The gallery of the murderous villain led by Leitch sells their quirks from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as fruity nickname Tangerine and Lemon – the latter a Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast, as we are often reminded – to musician Bad Bunny as a vengeful groom known as The Wolf (a moonlight howl accompanies his entrances). Logan Lerman is unrecognizable as the troublemaker of a Russian crime boss, with a tattooed and dangerous Michael Shannon playing White Death, said ruthless crime boss under Japanese masks and tousled silver hair. Everyone has their own schtick – Lemon continues to equate characters with Thomas’ friends, Tangerine’s brass knuckles do their word, White Death has only seen his enemies slaughter in slow-motion flashbacks – and that’s fine. Bullet Train doesn’t fish for anything more complicated than warring mercenaries battling for scores.
Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada bring their mastery of martial arts to the railway battlefields, but some may be disappointed to discover that the big explosions have been saved for the finale. That’s not to say that Leitch’s action choreography is more likely to fail; it’s just more short, easy-to-edit brawls with actors like Henry and Pitt. Koji single-handedly destroys opponents in the Cinemax series Warrior, but here is saddled with Joey King’s schoolgirl sweet prince for reasons I’ll leave undefined. There are elements of Bullet Train that fall victim to America’s less fluid and more clumsy action, and yet it’s never as blatant as something like – loathing to keep hammering – The Gray Man of Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins.
Pitt’s ability to amplify his action sequences with laughter makes all the difference. Ladybug continues to recite his therapist’s teachings to counter Tangerine’s brash aggression or White Death’s unresolved anger issues, and Pitt’s attitude doesn’t let the gimmick drown out. Henry achieves the same with Lemon’s Thomas the Tank Engine wisdom, as he continues to scour the bullet train to Kyoto in search of a “diesel,” aka the main villain that complicates everyone’s confused missions. There are plenty of cackling moments, like when sound designers use the perfect *pop sound* when Ladybug hits Tangerine in the noggin with a glass water bottle, even when other jokes (like a disagreement Lemon and Tangerine have about their body count) don’t land so well. What is promised on the tin – bullets and trains – is delivered unfiltered, though sometimes too indulgent in the film’s thematic resolutions “what goes around comes around”.
You’re here for the action, and that’s what’s consistent. Pitt’s usual strategy involves Ladybug licking until Ladybug is victorious thanks to someone else’s bad luck, but even then he portrays nasty physical punishments. The better glimpses are Tangerine and Ladybug pausing their hubbub in the concession car so that a pleasant salesman (an abused Karen Fukuhara) can offer them drinks or whatever happens after Ladybug and [redacted] reach their final boss fight. Henry and Pitt stealthily trade blows and smacks during a respectful “Quiet Car” dust-up. Zazie Beetz stars as another agile Ladybug opponent, while a cartoon feline mascot delights as Ladybug’s punching bag. Leitch takes on prop comedy as fighters integrate their surroundings to ensure the violence stays fresh while the violence remains a gory bounty – deaths include cut heads, halved faces, and other bloody spurts that don’t skimp on graphic brutality. The influence of Japanese yakuza movies is not lost on Leitch, apart from on-screen text fonts and neon brightness like under the Tokyo nighttime skyline.
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