This action-comedy goes off the rails in a good way, but some riders may get motion sickness.
Five strangers with deadly ambitions sit on a train speeding from Tokyo to Kyoto in the middle of the night, all connected by one mystery yet to be solved. It sounds like the setup for a modern Agatha Christie whodunit, but make those strangers dangerous hitmen, and switch out the intrigue with violent mayhem, and you get Bullet Train.
Long-time stuntman turned director, David Leitch, makes his flawed but still outrageous and fun magnum opus by combining the balletic action of John Wick with the blood-soaked screwball comedy from his 2018 film, Deadpool 2. Here Leitch asks what can happen when you throw a bunch of balls in the air at once, light those balls on fire with a flamethrower and then throw more balls in the air and see where things land.
The answer is barely controlled chaos, which is essential for a good action film. Most of the action takes place on the titular bullet train, giving the setting an automatic claustrophobia that lends itself to incredibly staged fights in every cramped seat, bathroom, or hallway they can fit a camera. While this does technically take place in our reality, the movie feels more like a live action Itchy & Scratchy Show. Characters are stabbed, shot, and mutilated with impunity. The only thing that can take someone out is the total destruction of their body, or snake venom of course.
Leitch throws those balls in the air early and often by introducing several plot devices that we’re waiting to go off at any moment. This may be the first movie to utilize a Chekov’s snake, a Chekov’s water bottle and a Chekov’s gun (that explodes when you pull the trigger).
Zak Olkewicz tries their best to adapt Kotaro Isaka’s novel by balancing an overwhelming number of characters and motivations in a small amount of space and time, but the never-ending cutaway gags and flashbacks turns the film into a dizzying overload that can be exhausting. He also utilizes the idea of “fate” to bring together all these characters, but it’s a lazy screenwriting shortcut to compensate for the many random coincidences and nonsensical events required to make this story come together.
That idea is introduced by one of the assassins here, codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt). It’s ironic because ladybugs are considered lucky, while this guy is notorious for being unlucky, proved by the fact he’s only on this mission that goes way beyond his pay grade because he’s a last-minute replacement. Pitt is no stranger to action, but this is his first go for broke stunt fighting spectacle. He doesn’t have the late career action star in him that Keanu Reeves proves with the John Wick franchise, but he’s able to pull off the fight choreography with some believability while delivering his casual Pitt charm as an assassin who’s open about his emotional growth through therapy.
One of the many pieces of inspirational wisdom Ladybug shares is, “Hurt people hurt people.” It’s something that belongs on a poster in a high school guidance counselor’s office, but it’s a phrase that gets to heart of the film better than the forced philosophy of “We’re all on this train murdering each other in elaborate ways because fate lead us here or something.”
The best characters in the ensemble are the hurt ones. The ones who are on this train to get revenge on someone who has wronged them or someone they loved in the past. He only has a quick cameo, but the musician, Bad Bunny, is an immediate and hilarious presence as the drug cartel hitman, The Wolf. He’s after the person who brutally Joffrey’d his wife and entire cartel at his own wedding. He doesn’t have any dialogue but shows up with a giant knife and the same bloody clothes he wore on his wedding day, as if he’s The Groom in an updated version of Kill Bill. It’s all he needs.
The other standout of the ensemble is The Kissing Booth’s Joey King as Prince, a vicious psychopath hiding behind a sweet British naïf exterior, like a Gen-Z Dolores Umbridge. She’s out for revenge too, and despite being the most diabolical in a lovable crew of killers, she’s the only actor that’s able to generate real catharsis with her arc and makes us feel actual empathy when her motivations are revealed late in the film.
With all these flaming balls in the air, it makes sense that some of them fall to the ground and catch the house on fire, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Bullet Train has the chaotic energy of being in the middle of an epic food fight at a friend’s wedding. It feels wrong and stupid, but it’s also exhilarating. It may require turning off the brain to enjoy the ultraviolence and never-ending Thomas the Tank Engine jokes, but it’s worth the ride.
Bullet Train opens in theaters August 5th.
Bullet Train Trailer: