Not to be confused with the 1975 Japanese action drama of the same name, David Leitch’s high-octane Bullet Train is a mash-up of genres and film styles that echo Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. And also Leitch’s own style, as seen previously in the Deadpool films. Here he directs an ensemble cast (and a few choice cameos) headlined by Brad Pitt. Leitch was formerly the stunt double for Pitt and now directs him in this adaptation (by Zak Olkewicz) of the Japanese mystery-fiction book Maria Beetle (by Kotaro Isaka).
Most of the action unfolds on a train speeding through Japan, from Tokyo to Kyoto. Among the unsuspecting passengers is a clutch of formidable assassins whose seemingly unconnected missions do somehow interconnect. Pitt plays an agent with the code name Ladybug. His handler, Maria (Sandra Bullock), is guiding him through the mission. Ladybug is coming out of some nervous breakdown or existential crisis, trying to reconcile his violence-soaked profession with his therapist’s zen positivity.
Also on the same train ride are characters called ‘Father’, ‘The Hornet’, ‘White Death’, ‘Prince’, ‘Wolf’ and so on, played by Andrew Koji, Zazie Beetz, Joey King, Michael Shannon and Bad Bunny, among others. The passengers have differing motivations. One man is trying to avenge his son’s accident, another is trying to entrap a grieving man to assist in an elaborate revenge plan. Ladybug is just trying to snatch and grab a briefcase but his exit from the train is thwarted repeatedly. There is also a British duo of assassins, Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), escorting precious cargo to its final handover at the last stop. Their banter and behaviour are comic relief in a 126-minute film that dizzyingly stacks up the bodycount. A venomous snake is also loose.
Pitt plays the story for laughs and the action set-pieces further distract from the cracked plot, which boils down to revenge and daddy issues. In a film that keeps lurching but doesn’t land smoothly, the best scenes are a fight sequence in the pantry and the scene when Pitt is fascinated by a Japanese smart toilet.
The narrative cuts back in time to fill in events that led to this convergence but this device only delays the already knotty plot. There are Kill Bill moments and a melding of Japanese pop culture trends, colours and graphics.
Interestingly, most of the movie was shot on a studio stage. Indeed, the film is impressive for its production design, action choreography and assimilating the train’s character, including the quiet car and other elements. And yet, in public transport, people are being poisoned, stabbed, shot etc, without any alarm bells going off or co-passengers noticing.
Bullet Train takes many diversions, focuses on stylized killings, slick action, glib repartee. There is only so much the cool cast, in particular Pitt, can do to keep this ride on track.