Bullet Train is a frustrating film. Intermittently funny, intermittently entertaining, intermittently painfully loud, intermittently offensive, it never settles into one groove but skips all over the place like a hyperactive kid telling a story. This one time, a guy gets on a train and he’s a bad man and there are other bad men and they all get into fights and there is a cartoon animal and racial stereotypes and the one bad man hits the other bad man and they go, like, Bro we are fighting now!
Brad Pitt stars as “Ladybug”, a shady man-for-hire who only does “snatch and grabs”. He’s supposed to steal a briefcase from a bullet train in Tokyo and drop it off at a specific stop, but of course, everything goes wrong.
Adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s novel, Maria Beetle, by Zak Olkewicz and directed by David Leitch (fun fact: Leitch was Pitt’s stunt double in Fight Club), Bullet Train is the kind of action-forward kinetic film Leitch has become known for since co-directing John Wick. However, Bullet Train also represents an escalation of Leitch’s style from the relatively simple days of John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Bullet Train is a hyper, jump-cutting, wisecracking borderline nightmare with a WAY over the top CG-heavy finale, yet it works in chunks whenever the top-notch cast gets to just sit down and talk, or maybe engage in some close-quarter combat. The bigger Bullet Train goes, the worse it gets, but about 60% of it is actually quite good.
Ladybug is joined on the train by “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Henry) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of London assassins; “Wolf” (Bad Bunny), a silent-but-deadly assassin; “Hornet” (Zazie Beetz), another assassin; “Prince” (Joey King), another assassin; and Kimura (Andrew Koji), not an assassin. The plot is a combination of who dunit and “beat the clock” thriller, involving Kimura’s hospitalized son and a mysterious underworld figure called the “White Death”. Ladybug wants no part of any of it, he just wants to do his positive affirmations and get off the train with the briefcase, but of course, events conspire against him.
The parts of Bullet Train that work are not unlike the parts of The Gray Man that work—movie stars being movie stars on a movie screen. Pitt is genuinely funny as Ladybug, though the action scenes jump-cut in a way meant to hide the reality of a fifty-eight-year-old actor with a twenty-something stunt double. We have seen Leitch do stylish, longer-form work in films like Atomic Blonde, we know he can do better action than the blender nightmare Bullet Train becomes, but the choppy editing is obviously disguising limitations of the cast. That said, a few sequences are designed for close quarters, and cleverly use the confined space of the train for brutal but funny fight scenes. It’s only when the film goes for bigger, more typically Hollywood set pieces that it loses momentum with CG-enhanced glop that takes away from the fun of a good old-fashioned fight scene.
There is also the issue of whitewashing, as Bullet Train started life as a Japanese novel, and many characters have been reimagined as non-Japanese for the film. Or perhaps it’s better put as erasure, as the film is quite diverse, though by erasing the variety of Japanese characters, Bullet Train renders a stereotypical western depiction of Japan—neon, anime, subservient and/or silent women, Yakuza triads everywhere. Hiroyuki Sanada shows up as Kimura’s father, and he is such an elegant performer that he elevates the material substantially, but this is, once again, a western film casting Sanada as an underworld figure. (Someone Cast Hiroyuki Sanada In Like, A Family Drama Challenge 2022.) By keeping the Japanese setting but bringing in a predominately non-Japanese cast, Japan and its culture are reduced to mere scenery, which was probably not anyone’s intention, but is what happens when these kinds of changes are made without interrogating how the optics change, too.
I accept most people won’t care about that, though, just as I accept that this borderline screaming nonsense will work for most people. It’s just funny enough, just star-powered enough, just well-choreographed enough to squeak by its own shortcomings. It only sometimes works, but honestly, having just seen the gray glop of The Gray Man, Bullet Train comes off better by comparison. At least Bullet Train feels like a proper movie someone actually wanted to make, not just an exercise in corporate brand management, and Bullet Train has a personality. It’s not always a good personality, but it has one.
Bullet Train is exclusively in theaters from August 5, 2022.