The best way to describe Bullet Train is that it’s extremely “from the director of Deadpool 2.” David Leitch is one of the founders of the 87North production company, itself an offshoot of 87Eleven Action Design, the collective of stunt performers and choreographers whose sensibilities have defined the past decade of Hollywood action. In contrast to co-founder Chad Stahelski, who has directed the visceral John Wick series without him since Chapter 2, Leitch’s work has gotten progressively more cartoony, mashing up the studio’s tightly-choreographed gunplay and martial arts with a vicious brand of bendy, CGI-infused slapstick. His latest feature, Bullet Train, is more of the same, albeit a bit less stupid. Don’t get me wrong, Bullet Train isn’t nearly as clever as Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz clearly think it is, but it has some wit, which, combined with a cast stacked with incredibly charming actors, makes it easily his strongest comedy to date. I’m only a little embarrassed to say that I like Bullet Train, and that’s remarkable considering how much I don’t like about it.
Big Trouble in Normal-Size Japan
A hard luck professional thief who’s been assigned the temporary codename Ladybug (a very game Brad Pitt) is hired to steal a briefcase being transported via a high-speed passenger train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Ladybug is recovering from a sort of mid-life crisis, and is trying to set aside violence and move forward with a more peaceful and positive approach towards his work. Against the advice of his handler (voice of Sandra Bullock), Ladybug leaves his gun behind and hops aboard, expecting a run of the mill sticky fingers job.
Once on board, he learns that there are several other parties interested in the briefcase, each with their own cute nickname. Brothers Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are supposed to deliver it to mysterious, bloodthirsty mob boss the White Death, along with his errant son (Logan Lerman). The Father (Andrew Koji), is a mob hitman being blackmailed into stealing it by the Prince (Joey King), a young woman who aims to prove herself a formidable criminal mastermind. Also on the case (or trying to be) are assassins the Wolf (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny) and the Hornet (Zazie Beetz).
As the linear story of the briefcase barrels forward, the narrative frequently digresses into cutaway gags and snippets of backstory, revealing that Ladybug is hardly the person on the train with the most at stake. If there’s a main character in this ensemble piece, it’s definitely not him, he’s just the goofy handsome white dude who’s stumbled into this mess. I get the impression that Leitch and Pitt have taken some inspiration from Kurt Russell’s character in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, hoping to take some of the edge off of having racebent most of the characters in this adaptation of a Japanese novel.
I’m not the best judge as to whether or not that effort is successful, but it’s not a great sign that Andrew Koji’s character — one of only two main characters who is still Japanese in the film — is also the least fun and is given the least to do. The other is his father, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, and is essentially the same katana-carrying stoic that Hollywood always asks him to play, albeit this time in a comedic context. Koji is the only star who doesn’t get to be funny in Bullet Train, and as a fan of his work on Warrior, I find that a bit disappointing.
The rest of the cast, however, capitalizes on comedic opportunities throughout the film. Bullet Train is a hyperverbal comedy (I’d go so far as to say “overwritten”) to the extent that the banter seems like the centerpiece of the film, rather than the action. A few weeks ago, I complained that The Gray Man’s dialogue fell short of its ambitions of Shane Black cleverness; Bullet Train does too, but it comes a lot closer. It helps that the heightened pitter-patter feels more at home in this film’s more stylized world, but it’s also a lot tighter, as is the chemistry between scene partners.
Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson shine as bickering “twins,” enough to gradually become the emotional core of the film. They’re quirks more than they’re complete characters, and the script leans on Lemon’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine a few too many times, but they pull off a coup here, stealing the movie out from under the nose of Brad Fucking Pitt. Pitt scores plenty of laughs himself, as do Joey King and the actor playing the White Death (it’s not a secret but I had more fun not knowing). There are groaners for sure, as Leitch and Olkewicz are the type who find the phrase “eat a bag of dicks” to be endlessly funny, but a lot of the humor lands, at least with me.
Apropo of Nothing, VFX Artists Deserve a Union
Given my affinity for and experience with 87Eleven/87North projects (I also reviewed their previous two films, Kate and Nobody), I’m surprised how little I have to say about the action in Bullet Train. It’s not that it isn’t good — Leitch and fight coordinator Kirk A. Jenkins find creative ways to stage combat within the narrow confines of a train — it’s simply not what I found exceptional about the movie. The comedy and action are totally integrated with each other, which I appreciate, but the bar for slapstick action was set very high this year by Everything Everywhere All at Once, against which Bullet Train doesn’t compare.
The fight staging is also a lot less showy than previous 87North films, which isn’t necessarily a complaint, simply an element that ran contrary to my expectations. David Leitch seems to be divorcing himself further from the style of action that he employed in Atomic Blonde and the first John Wick and pushing further into pure comic book. It’s a better fit for this film, but comic book action is very easy to come by in cinema right now.
Bullet Train also suffers from some wonky visual effects, which become more pronounced as the locomotive danger escalates. This is fine, to a degree, as by this point the movie has gone full cartoon, but I felt more detached from the action than I wanted to be. Some detachment is good, especially since Bullet Train dabbles in some truly mean and senseless violence that occasionally veers outside the margins of what I find to be fun, but I would very much prefer not to be thinking about VFX during the climax of an action movie. This may be the reason why Bullet Train’s last fifteen minutes don’t do it for me, as the upshift into full Deadpool mode feels unnecessary after the film has floated comfortably at a Kiss Kiss Bang Bang level of realism for the better part of two hours. It’s just another way in which Bullet Train is just a little too much of itself for its own good.
In truth, there are a lot of individual components to Bullet Train that annoy me. Like in his last two features, Leitch adds a few cameos from uncredited A-list actors for cheap laughs. Nearly every running gag overstays its welcome. Three different male characters are motivated by the unrelated murders of their nameless wives, which has to be some sort of record. And yet, when I look back at the whole of the film, I generally recall it positively. I laughed a lot, I had fun, I got invested. As easy a mark as I am for an action movie, even I’m surprised how well this works. This coming weekend offers a lot of new releases both in theatres and at home, and between the positive early buzz for Prey (which I’ll be reviewing here later this week) and Bodies Bodies Bodies, there are probably better ways to spend your two hours. However, if you’re looking for something fast, light, and bloody, Bullet Train will take you there.