Review: Bullet Train Speeds By With Chaotic Action and Brad Pitt’s Under-Utilized Comedic Wit

Did you ever have a friend who took one semester of Intro to Psychology and immediately started analyzing themselves and your lives like they wrote the damn textbook? So, that’s pretty much Brad Pitt’s Ladybug character in Bullet Train, featuring a hyper-active collection of assassins and other criminal types who all end up on the same high-speed rail traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, with the eventual goal of either delivering a case full of money to a ruthless mob boss or stealing it from him and risking his wrath. More of an excuse to line up back-to-back action sequences and less an actual film, Bullet Train is pure chaos in screenplay form, and it reminds us that Pitt is a wildly underused comedic force when given the right material—or even the wrong material, which he is fully capable of making exponentially better by sheer force of will.

With former stuntman/stunt coordinator David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw; he was even Pitt’s stunt double on Fight Club) at the helm, the movie begins with Pitt being given a snatch-and-grab assignment by his largely unseen handler (Sandra Bullock, who does show up at the end, perhaps returning the favor Pitt did her by cameoing in The Lost City; her co-star in that film, Channing Tatum, also pops up here briefly). The handler tells him to board the aforementioned train and steal a briefcase full of cash. But there’s nothing simple about the assignment or the passengers on said train. Andrew Koji plays Kimura, the father of a young boy who was pushed off the roof of a building and is now fighting for his life in the hospital. He is on the train because he received information that the person who pushed his son is onboard and he wants revenge. He’s learned a little something about payback from his fallen mob boss father (the great Hiroyuki Sanada), who sees his son as weak and useless as a father, but he still wants to protect his grandson at any cost.

Also on the train are hitmen with the code names Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), collectively known as the Twins, who are there to deliver said briefcase and the son (Lorgan Lerman) of the most powerful criminal leader in Japan, known only as White Death (I won’t ruin the surprise of who plays him). Their job seems the easiest, until the son turns up dead while under their care, and the briefcase goes missing when Ladybug finds it almost as soon as he boards the train. And then there’s the mysterious young woman named Prince (Joey King, with a very convincing British accent), who blackmails Kimura into a plan she has for killing White Death with his own case. Her motives are unclear, even after she explains them, and she might be the most ruthless of everyone on this train.

This being the world’s fastest train, the rules of travel are pretty clear: you can’t jump off the train while in motion; the train only stops at a few stations along the way and the doors only remain open for one minute, making getting off the train as difficult as getting on at times. And while it may sound like Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (loosely working from a book by Kotaro Isaka) are just putting a bunch of psychopaths on a train to kill each other, what ends up happening is a great number of amusing conversations, punctuated by violence, with Pitt at the center trying to keep the peace by misquoting inspirational sayings and just generally confusing people with his decidedly non-violent approach to things.

At various points during Bullet Train, we also get visits from assassins played by musician Bad Bunny (real name Benito A Martínez Ocasio) as yet another killer, seeking revenge on someone on the train for the death of his wife; Zazie Beetz as poison expert Hornet; and even “Heroes” star Masi Oka as the train conductor, who plagues Ladybug more than anyone else. Admittedly, things start to feel cluttered during the course of the film, but everyone is clearly locked in and enjoying the hell out of playing such unhinged characters that a great deal of that joy rubs off on us. 

Some have knocked the movie for feeling like one of those post-Pulp Fiction, Tarantino ripoff works from the mid-1990s, which always seems to be the case when violent characters talk like they have a brain in their head. But very little else about Bullet Train feels like it was scraped from the bottom of Tarantino’s boot. I actually enjoyed hearing Pitt try on self-help philosophies like a pair of new shoes that don’t quite fit right; I also laughed whenever Lemon would bring up his greatest source of inspiration, Thomas the Tank Engine. And watching King manipulate everyone on the train by playing the innocent, slightly sexualized school girl made me laugh and cringe simultaneously.

Admittedly, the film goes on far too long, and the last 20 minutes especially are a grind, but it’s tough not to just sit back and let the punching, stabbing, shooting, slicing, poisoning, spurting, and exploding wash over you like a cool breeze. These actors are almost overly present for much of the film, and while it makes it near impossible to suspend any level of disbelief, it also made me laugh a great deal. At worst, the film may not work for some, but it’s hardly at a level where hatred of the movie makes sense (although I’m sure some will actually hate it because…internet). I didn’t mind the old-school Tarantino or Guy Ritchie of it all because even those filmmakers don’t make those types of movies any more.

The film will begin a theatrical run on Friday.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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