After co-directing the terrific franchise launcher “John Wick”, director, producer, actor, and stuntman David Leitch has put together a filmography of big action spectacles of varying quality. And while I may not be a fan of his “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” romps, there’s no denying that his movies have their fanbases and have made good money at the box office. Those are big reasons why Leitch was brought on to helm the star-studded action-comedy “Bullet Train”.
Maybe he did some convincing. Perhaps he called in a favor. Either way, Leitch was able to get Brad Pitt to lead his rapid-fire over-the-top actioner that pretty much runs at one speed. Based on the Japanese pulp novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka, Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz reshape the original story and characters, leaning on the charm and charisma of Pitt and the talent-rich cast to keep us locked in.
But Pitt and company can only carry the movie so far, and it quickly becomes evident that there’s nothing of substance underneath the flimsy veneer of steady quips and non-stop action. You can see Leitch and Olkewicz working so hard to be cool, stylish, and edgy. But all they manage is a Tarantino knock-off that operates under the idea that all you need is forced humor, endless f-bombs, a few needle-drops, and over-cranked violence to capture QT’s success. And as the storytelling more and more takes a backseat, this exhausting endurance test becomes almost unbearable.
The story itself is pretty inconsequential. Basically you have an assortment of assassins who board a bullet train in Tokyo bound for Kyoto. Each are onboard for their own reasons, but they soon discover their individual missions (some professional, some personal) are all connected and it’s no coincidence that they’re all on the same train. That’s a sound enough premise, especially for a movie with action as its centerpiece. Unfortunately, the story barely goes an inch deeper.
While the movie bounces around from character to character, Pitt gets top billing playing a hitman called Ladybug. Sporting a bucket hat and black-rimmed glasses, the notoriously unlucky Ladybug recently took some time away from contract killing to find inner peace or something silly like that (it’s a reoccurring joke the movie never gets tired of). But now he’s back at the behest of his handler, Maria (Sandra Bullock). She has the newly zen Ladybug an easy job – a simple snatch and grab. Yeah right.
Also on the train are two quarrelsome “twins”, Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who are escorting a mob boss’ son and a briefcase full of cash back to a mysterious crime lord known as White Death. There’s Prince (a good Joey King), a calculated killer who plays the “poor innocent girl” card to deadly perfection. Then there’s Yuichi, a Japanese assassin looking to pay back the person who put his 6-year-old son in the hospital. There are a few others like The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), but they mainly show up for a quick action scene each and that’s it.
The biggest problem with these characters is that none of them feel real. None of them give you anything to latch onto or any reason to care about them. The cast puts in the effort and seem to be having a good time. But aside from their surface appeal, every character feels hollow. And once their cartoonish coolness wears off there’s nothing left. Now that may sound like nitpicking especially for a movie that clearly aims more towards style than story. But I can’t help it. I like characters with at least a few layers.
Muddying things up and bloating the runtime are a plethora of irrelevant flashbacks framed to have more meaning than they really do. Add to them several snooze-worthy exposition drops that play like vain attempts to add story depth. When you combine all of that with the juvenile dialogue and the slew of jokes and gags that aren’t nearly as clever or funny as the filmmakers think they are, you’re left with a tedious and frankly numbing experience.
As the story barrels forward, the filmmakers choose louder over smarter and end up sending the film right off the rails (sorry, it’s a cheap pun but I couldn’t resist). We’re left with a movie that doesn’t bother with logic and that believes piling on more stylized action, more shallow humor, and a few cheap cameos in enough to get by. And maybe they’re right. Maybe the film’s furious pace will offer enough misdirection to keep audiences from looking at its glaring flaws. And maybe some will see this as one of those films where you just turn your brain off and have a good time. But even throw-away popcorn movies need a soul. And no matter how hard I looked, I never found one in “Bullet Train”.
A switch brain off with Brad Pitt sounds ok for a Saturday night so I’ll do this in spite of your 1&1/2 stars! 🤣
Good luck. It is such a grind. I was so glad when it was over.
Haha ok I’m forewarned!
Ugh! It really really makes me want to research the whys of Brad Pitt’s decision to be in this dog of a movie, especially right after playing in QT’s Once Upon a Time… This movie, at this time in his career, could actually hurt it. Brad, you don’t need to do these things — unless they paid you a WHOLE LOT of money — and even then one is your limit. Keith, if you learn why he did it, please let me know.
I will. I do wonder if the director David Leitch called in a favor. He and Pitt have a close relationship. He was Pitts stunt man for a total of five movies. Maybe that’s why.
Ah! I do remember you saying that in your review. Didn’t realize that connection. And then QT’s movie, where Pitt plays a stuntman. Hmmmm… Speaking of QT, that’s the 2nd movie he’s made with stunt people playing key roles. I just watched Once Upon a Time… again the other night. Such an excellent and polished piece of work it is!
That very well may be my favorite QT movie. I know that’s saying a lot, but just like you said, it’s excellent. From the cast to the setting to the production design to the storytelling. I adore that movie.
I really enjoyed the book and it was one of my favourites of 2021. The style of the book is quite cinematic so perfect for a film, but when I saw the trailers for this I thought they’ve spoiled the tone of the book and turned it into a comedy action movie. Anyway my book review is here if you’re interested – https://nsfordwriter.com/bullet-train-kotaro-isaka/
I’ll be sure to check it out. The movie tries REALLY hard on the comedy side. But it’s like they keep beating the same loud annoying drum.
I checked my review and I didn’t even mention the book being funny…. sounds like they messed the film up!
I understand your frustration with a film low on plot and character, but this is clearly a cartoon. Ladybug 🐞 could just as easily be named “Bugs”. This is Buster Keaton meets angry Abbott and Costello. There is nothing about this film that feels real. That’s probably why I was able to enjoy it, I stopped looking for the appearing and disappearing other passengers and staff, and just laughed at the juvenile jokes and action bits.
I could have probably got by if I found the endless jokes even mildly funny. I think I smiled a couple of times. And I completely agree that it’s more or less a cartoon. But I like Bugs. And I certainly like the many silent characters of Buster Keaton more than anyone in this thing. With 45 minutes left I was pretty numb.
Dammit, I had enjoyed David Leitch’s films not just for their action but also in how much they didn’t take themselves seriously while also had this element of cool. I was hoping for something good but I felt like something was off during the promotion. Now, I don’t think I want to see this. I’ll go watch something else. Poor Brad Pitt. He deserves better.
Brad Pitt definitely gives it his all. And his performance is just fine. Unfortunately the material is just so exhausting. I should say I also liked Joey King in this. I haven’t watched those ridiculous Kissing Booth movies but she’s been in some stuff that has really impressed me.
I did see a Honest Trailer for those Kissing Booth movies and… ugh… no wonder kids are fucked up these days. I hope my niece and nephew never watch that shit. I prefer for them to watch Encanto 8 times a day than watch those 3 films. They love that film even though I’m tired of it.
Yep, I couldn’t bring myself to try it! LOL
I turned my brain off and it was a good train ride for me. My wife liked it as well. We both agreed it would have made more sense to take 20 minutes or so out of the film and “tighten it up” a bit. If you are going to bonkers, anything-goes, total chaos…you might as well cut the movie that way throughout once the character exposition is over. I do get why you and others are going to not like this movie. These kind of movies “land” on people in different ways. Made me think of the Kingsman: Secret Service and Golden Circle movies…you’ll either love or hate this movie.
The thing for me is I just didn’t find it funny or exciting and that made just rolling with it tough. And I can usually turn my brain off pretty easy. But this one just wouldn’t end. HaHa
I 💙 the Thomas the Tank Engine references
It definitely had those