A comedy action movie, emphasis on the comedy, starring Brad Pitt as a professional criminal who wants nothing in his life but good vibes, Bullet Train has a lot going for it. On paper. Directed by David Leitch, starring Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King, Michael Shannon, and Hiroyuki Sanada, and mixing action and comedy on the titular bullet train, what’s not to love?
Pitt is on a simple mission. He is given the codename “Ladybug” and tasked with retrieving a briefcase from the bullet train. Ideally, he should get on, grab the case, and then get off at the next stop. Meanwhile, Lemon (Henry) and Tangerine (Taylor-Johnson) are looking after someone they are supposed to keep safe, in exchange for a decent payday. Meanwhile, Prince (King) wants to get revenge on a number of people, as does Wolf (played by Bad Bunny. MEANWHILE, others start to board the train with their own deadly agendas. Ladybug shouldn’t even be there, as he is filling in for an agent named Carver, and it isn’t long until he wishes he hadn’t taken the job.
Based on a book by Kôtarô Isaka, turned into a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz, this is a bizarre throwback to a time when every other film was trying to rip off Tarantino or Guy Ritchie. I am not sure if the problem lies with the source material, having not read the book, but there’s a smugness throughout that isn’t matched by the dialogue or plotting. Everything feels far too much like a Rube Goldberg machine, an excessive amount of moving parts and complications leading to a very underwhelming final result, and the eclectic cast isn’t good enough, overall, to help it all along.
Leitch, who has spent the last five years directing films that mix action and comedy better than this one, fails to find the right way through the dense plotting. There aren’t enough moments of impressive action, the comedy always feels like a separate component, rather than an intertwining strand, and any sense of entertaining spectacle is undermined by the overuse of CGI. This is a busy movie in so many ways, often painfully so, and I only felt that working in its favour during an enjoyable finale that somehow managed to tie up every strand and provide a punchline for every running gag (so fair play to Olkewicz for saving his best work until the end of the movie).
Pitt is fine in the lead role, playing a character we have seen a version of in a number of different movies now. The main thing that allows him to stand out is what he views as a constant string of bad luck, something that allows the script to keep getting bigger and wilder, but there’s a moderately interesting idea tucked away here about perspective, and how bad luck in one way may be good luck in the long run. Taylor-Johnson is bad, I just didn’t like him in this role (and I can only imagine how much this movie could have been improved with someone else there), but Henry does a bit better, helping to make their scenes together more bearable. I don’t want to rate every single main player, especially when I can spend some time highlighting just how good both Shannon and Sanada are. Both get in on the action for the third act, and both take this movie up an entire notch or two. King is okay, Bad Bunny is . . . okay, Zazie Beetz is great, but sadly underused, and there are a few cameos that properly amused me.
It certainly tries to keep the momentum going for most of the 2+ hour runtime, I will give it that, and the soundtrack has some great choices, although I wanted even more. I MIGHT revisit and reappraise this at some point, to see if I enjoy it more while spending less time trying to unpick the various plot threads, but for now I have to tell people that it’s not recommended. It’s tonally very messy, it’s comedically very hit and miss (but one hit, a sequence showing two men tallying up the numbers killed in their most recent job, is superb), and it spends a lot of time going off the rails before sorting itself out just in time for that enjoyable finale.
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