UPDATED with video review: Right from the start, you know exactly what you are in for with Bullet Train, a non-stop mix of violence, comedy and more violence, Japanese-style, as filtered through the lens of director David Leitch, a stuntman-turned-filmmaker whose past credits of Atomic Blonde, Fast & Furious: Hobbs and Shaw, and Deadpool 2 pretty much prepare you for what to expect here. However, even though this was mostly shot on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, with some killer production design and a cool train courtesy of David Scheunemann, it undoubtedly feels we are in Tokyo where I am sure the Sony bosses were delighted with the dailies as they came in.
Unfortunately, from my vantage point this just seems like a lark for star Brad Pitt, coming off an Oscar for the far superior Quentin Tarantino masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, also from Sony, and the underrated Ad Astra, both pre-pandemic in 2019. His most notable appearance since has been in a comedic supporting role in The Lost City with Sandra Bullock, who returns the favor here in a mostly voice-over role as his “handler,” therapist, self-help guide, guru — whatever you want to call her — who is constantly guiding him through the messes he gets himself into.
In this case, Ladybug, as he is nicknamed, is an assassin looking to change his ways and deal with his job in a “peaceful” manner all in an effort to become his better Ladybug as it were. But landing on a Japanese super bullet train he is pitted against several other assassins from around the globe, all connected to a quest for a case with millions inside. Chief among those looking to retrieve it are a pair of mismatched “brothers” named Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Ladybug has his work cut out for him as he must also deal not just with this quirky pair, but also with a rogues gallery of dangerous characters including Kimura (Andrew Koji), Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny), The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), a deceptive young woman named Prince (Joey King) constantly trying to put the blame on others, and the fearsome and ugly White Death (Michael Shannon). As he takes in doses of advice from the heard-but-not-seen (until the end) Maria (Bullock), Ladybug is trying to stay out of the fray but keeps getting pulled back in as you might imagine when, one by one, this group gets individually introduced, caught up in fights, done away with, resurrected and done away with again — all contributing to the cartoonish mayhem that makes up the bulk of this flick with a frenetic screenplay by Zak Olkewicz adapting the novel by Kotaro Isaka.
I am not at all sure what it looked like on the page, but on the screen it is little more than a live-action cartoon, or should I say anime. Leitch stages one badass action scene after another and Pitt navigates it all with a measure of wit and snappy one-liners at every turn. I can’t say the thing ever goes off the rails because it never was on the rails to begin with. It all seems like an attempt to draw an undemanding international audience with a well-chosen and game cast that has something for everyone who wants to submit to mindless adventure.
None of the characters, Pitt’s included, remotely resembles actual human beings, but they give it the old college try. Still, movies tend to work best when the characters have some semblance of credible relation to actual living people. This one doesn’t seem to care one whit, going for laughs instead. Aside from the star whose natural charisma carries him through as well as his too often underused comedic talents , it is Henry who is the most watchable even if his Lemon must profess allegiance to a children’s book Thomas the Tank Engine as his guide to life. I was genuinely sorry to see him go the first couple of times he was murdered. Taylor-Johnson does his best impression of Michael Caine circa Get Carter. Shannon chews whatever scenery isn’t blown up. Koji scores a few points for his sheer alcoholic morose take on things. The great Japanese star Sanada, who plays his father, is a very welcome presence here. Bad Bunny (the rap star Sony is grooming for his own upcoming starring vehicle) never escapes the stereotype of his role, but it is more in the writing than in the playing. King as the sociopathic Prince got on my nerves. Beetz’s Hornet is undercover a lot but I have to say her reveals are a highlight. As for Bullock, it was nice of her to reimburse Pitt for Lost City. You can be on the lookout as well for a couple of superstar surprise cameos that are just thrown into the mix as inside jokes (hint: both have co-starred with Bullock in past movies).
No one can complain about the look of this enterprise. The cinematography by Jonathan Sela is aces, as is that aforementioned and spectacular production design. Dominic Lewis has delivered a sharp score, and film editor Elizbet Ronaldsdottir keeps it moving, though at just over two hours it felt repetitive after a while. Producers are Leitch, Kelly McCormick and Antoine Fuqua. Sony takes the Columbia Pictures release out wide Friday exclusively in theaters, really the right venue for this trip.
Check out my video review above with scenes from the film. Do you plan to see Bullet Train? Let us know what you think.
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