On board for Bullet Train, you might well think of movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, where a cluster of quirky criminals collide in messy missions, resulting in as much violent mayhem as moments to philosophize with dynamite dialogue. Funnily enough, Bullet Train is not a new Guy Ritchie movie, but comes from director David Leitch, who’s been carving out a stellar reputation for action awesomeness with Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs and Shaw. This time around, he’s got Brad Pitt as his leading man, and a speeding train as the terrain where warring hitmen get fired up.
Based on Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel, Bullet Train follows a hitman turned “snatch and grab guy” whose operation name is Ladybug (Brad Pitt) — a bit of a joke as he is “biblically” unlucky. He’s taking a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto with the aim of snatching a certain briefcase along the way. It’s supposed to be a simple job, his unseen handler (Sandra Bullock) assures him over the phone. But Ladybug soon runs afoul of a snarl of killers, with cool code names like The Prince, The Wolf, The Hornet, and the dastardly duo of Tangerine and Lemon (more on them in a bit).
While these foes come armed with guns, knives, and deadly venom, Ladybug has opted not to carry a weapon but instead a bunch of therapy soundbites about how every conflict is an opportunity for change. Can he stick to his self-improvement mantras in the face of many murderers and survive the ride to Kyoto? Well, you know what they say, progress isn’t a straight line.
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Bullet Train explodes with comically quirky criminals.
Credit: Sony Pictures
Paired with his brief but memorable appearance in The Lost City, Brad Pitt is having a spectacular year for comedy action roles. There, he was an impossibly macho mercenary, who had all the swagger of Harrison Ford. Here, he turns the tables on our expectations of the electrically cool Pitt persona honed from movies like Fight Club and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, playing a bucket-hatted goofball, who would be more at home politely badgering a barista for almond milk than facing off with a pack of murderers on a high-speed train. But this incongruity is precisely the point, making Pitt the goofy grinned center of an unapologetically silly and nonetheless ultra-violent thrill ride.
Around Pitt’s solace-seeking stooge are a sharp Joey King, a tormented Andrew Koji, a glowering Bad Bunny, a curse-spitting Zazie Beetz, a sage Hiroyuki Sanada, and Michael Shannon being exactly as intimidating as you’d hope from Michael Shannon. However, the reveals of their characters are among the popping surprises of this journey. So, I’ll detour around spoilers.
Prominent in promotions for good reason are Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, who play “The Twins,” aka a tag team of assassins who go by Tangerine and Lemon. Both boast sparkling British accents, but Johnson pops out of the mold of English gangster with a polished presentation and a refusal to get ruffled. Boasting a sexy, crooked smile, he growls punchlines and threats with equal swagger. By contrast, Henry is the wild card of the pair, bickering in front of hostages, and resolutely tying every situation to the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine. Though this feels like a cutesy Hollywood screenwriting flourish, the Thomas and Friends stuff is actually an element from Isaka’s novel. Here, it plays as unexpected fun, then a bit grating, then circles back around to bizarrely bemusing — and in no small part because of Henry’s commitment to the bit. Who’d know a children’s sticker book could pack such a punch?
Bullet Train is stuffed with quips, action, and frantic flashbacks.
Credit: Sony Pictures
Sometimes this is to its detriment. Like Ritchie movies, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz has delivered a flurry of rapid-fire banter, ranging from train-traveling etiquette to a disputed kill count. Sometimes such exchanges set off a fast-paced flashback to minutes, hours, or years before, giving audiences a crash course on complicated backstories in moments. At first, this frenzied approach is fun, keeping us on our toes as the plot races into a thicket of conflicts, clues, and connections. But as the train hits the final leg of its trip, these flashbacks become derailing — and knowingly stupid. The journey of a water bottle to a pivotal moment is meant to be wacky entertainment, but like some of the cross-cutting action sequences, it’s more a frustrating road bump delaying our much-anticipated destination.
At two hours and six minutes, Bullet Train slows down ahead of its big finale, presumably to allow the audience to process — not Ladybug’s emotional trauma, but all those plot twists. There’s a quiet moment where the weight of this final battle is meant to sink in. But without its non-stop stunts and hijinks, Bullet Train becomes a bit of a bore, right before a climax that is not only bonkers but also unapologetically dumb in its physical comedy. This movie isn’t pretending it’s sophisticated, and frankly, I appreciate the Michael Bay-style honesty.
Bullet Train‘s action sequences are the best of the summer.
Credit: Sony Pictures
Sorry to the grating Gray Man, the wobbly Thor: Love and Thunder, and even the high-flying Top Gun: Maverick. (Let’s not pretend Spiderhead is an action movie.) Stunt coordinator turned director, David Leitch broke onto the scene as an uncredited helmer in John Wick, then promptly delivered the orgasmic action epic that is Atomic Blonde, then the off-the-wall violence in Deadpool 2. He’s a master at finding exciting new ways to throw punches — and every possible improvised weapon — and making it cinematically stunning.
Because Bullet Train‘s protagonist refuses to carry a gun, Ladybug is repeatedly forced to find anything handy to battle for his life. This brings cabinet doors, bottled water, and laptops into play with imaginative employment. Furious whip pans and whip tilts throw the camera into a lunge, enhancing the routine action speed and giving the audience a more intense sense of motion. The sound effects aren’t as hard-hittingly visceral as they might be (see Nope!), but this smartly keeps the violence goofy over gutting. That way this giddy barrage of violence feels positively thrilling instead of stomach-churning and unnerving.
Overall, Bullet Train is a blast. Sure, the pacing fumbles for a bit, and some characters are certainly short-changed amid the storm of spectacle. (Beetz deserves better than her one-note role.) But overall, Bullet Train is the most fun I’ve had at an action movie this summer. Leitch loads up his latest with star power, colorful killers, inventive stunts, zinging banter, and terrific twists. So, in the end, Bullet Train is a satisfyingly eye-popping and heart-pounding wild ride.
Bullet Train is now in theaters.