‘Bullet Train’ Is a Punch-Packed Ride

Glossy thriller crammed with stylish fights, not much else

Glassy-eyed neon funtime propels Bullet Train, a glib comic thriller that treats endemic ultraviolence as a sustained punch line and jettisons clever storytelling for blunt narrative propulsion. This over-filigreed and undercooked lark throws Rube-Goldberg plot twists at the audience with ferocious aplomb, assuming they’ll come across as sophisticated instead of maddening.

What fuels this otherwise off-the-rails speed demon? Pure star power, plus a plethora of pleasantly WTF celeb cameos. Here’s looking at you, Channing “Is this the sex stuff?” Tatum.

Brad Pitt delivers maxims along with plenty of action in ‘Bullet Train.’

Brad Pitt makes all the nonsense palatable, as long as you’re up for an assassin riff on his laid-back karma-absorbing broheim from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “If you don’t control your fate, fate will control you,” he says in a sleepy-eyed drawl, one of his many self-help aphorisms that pepper quiet moments in between graphic mayhem. He plays the world-weary assassin Ladybug, tasked with boarding a late-night Nippon Speed Line ride going from Tokyo to Kyoto.

BULLET TRAIN ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Zac Olkewicz
Starring: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, Sandra Bullock
Running time: 126 min

It’s a snatch-and-grab mission involving a silver briefcase holding a small fortune, but everything naturally goes sideways due to convoluted reasons that involve competing interests. Plus, a pair of thuggish British brothers code-named Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), a cunning young woman dressed like a posh schoolgirl (Joey King), an anguished blackmailed hitman (Andrew Koji), and a mysterious Yakuza overlord named White Death (Michael Shannon). Oh, also a Mexican badass named The Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) and his private vendetta against a mysterious killer named The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), whose dialogue mostly consists of repeating the word “Bitch.”

Because it’s impossible to make Brad Pitt ugly, Ladybug is an adorkable hunk in a Gilligan’s Island bucket hat and thick-rimmed Poindexter glasses. Those are the visual cues that he’s trying to become a better man. He’s the kind of hoodlum haunted by his actions who sees a therapist to process those nefarious deeds. His handler is Maria (Sandra Bullock), a no-nonsense contact who gives him tough-love pep talks whenever he calls in to give her updates and ruminate about the toxicity of anger surrounding him.

But the boring pop psychobabble doesn’t stop with him: Tangerine and Lemon constantly banter over each other’s issues. “You need to talk to someone,” scolds Tangerine when Lemon shoplifts some food from an aisle pushcart. Lemon, meanwhile, is too busy lecturing everyone about how he learned everything in life from “Thomas the Tank Engine.” The chronic question: Are you a Percy or a Diesel? They’re the type to bicker over a recent body count and mentally relive all the carnage—cued to an Engelbert Humperdinck ditty. Irreverent!

David Leitch made a name for himself with movies like Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde, so his flair for physical antics, baroque pummeling, and sassy zingers is clearly front and center here. But more dominant is that ’90s strain of subpar Tarantino rip-off flicks with chatty peacocking lowlifes vocalizing their irreverent outlooks on life. Defenders might point to Bullet Train as a fate/chance/will parable where human beings are simply along for the ride and only ever dodge complete chaos due to a deluded sense of good or bad luck. Others will just see a film with goofily louche attitudes where everything is disposable and nothing really matters.

The whole movie is a big idiotic “domo arigato” to bastardized Japanese culture, too, right down to the propensity of samurai swords, kawaii kid’s show character outfits, and trite Rising Sun wisdom. But it’s so stupidly superficial and buoyantly unserious that the offense feels less of an insult and more of a reveal about the filmmaker’s style-obsessed vapidity. Any movie that bookends itself with Japanese versions of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” clearly wants a disco-fueled ride.

It delivers that, more or less, and demands not to be taken too seriously—although there are a handful of dissonant moments aiming for a weird sort of poignancy. But that shake-and-bake mix of gaudy bloodlust crossed with gauzy sentiment just doesn’t stick. How could it? And how strange that a movie with such a high body count could feel so harmless.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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