MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Action-Comedy/Stars: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martínez Ocasio, Sandra Bullock, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Karen Fukuhara, Masi Oka, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Miraj Grbić, Yoshi Sudarso/Runtime: 126 minutes
I think it is a pretty safe bet to make that, should a film maker and their team conduct it just right, complete with stakes, mood, and vibe to the whole thing, there really can exist a wonderful and quite beneficial bond between potent action beats and goofy comedy respectively. Indeed as a result of this bond, a protagonist can take part in a quick-fire and quite visceral collection of punches, kicks, and just general hits against an antagonist that may be quite primal as well as dramatic when looking at it from one point of view, but at the same time these same action beats can be so gloriously riveting if not just plain awesome that you can’t help but laugh in awe of what you are seeing unfold before you. Perhaps this is why a lot of the lightning quick martial arts choreography for a while now has also become material that has been shown by such icons as Jackie Chan to also be utilized fairly well for delightful comedy of a physical variety. Yet I also think it should be said that this wonderful blend is one that a member of the realm of movie magic by the name of David Leitch has managed to utilize to fairly good success in his career as a director. Indeed after inserting a smattering of genuinely comedic moments into the first John Wick from 2014 as well as the vastly underrated 2017 spy thriller Atomic Blonde, we as movie goers got to see this guy put to extremely good use the brilliant talent that is Mr. Ryan Reynolds to maximum effort in 2018’s Deadpool 2 and then proceeded to sculpt some on-point action beats that were very much in synch with both Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in 2019’s spin-off film in the Fast and Furious universe that focused on fan-favorite characters Hobbs and Shaw. It is with that in mind that we now come to this stuntman turned helmer’s latest slice of cinema, Bullet Train, and again it is another slice of cinema that aspires to engage that distinct blend, albeit with a bigger cast of characters at his disposal, and by and large it is yet another winner in his resume. Indeed with a vibe that perhaps could best be summed up as Guy Ritchie at the start of his career with a concentration on action, Bullet Train is a slice of cinema that is not only wonderfully goofy, but also highly kinetic and lively in its action beats whilst also bringing out the best of not only its lead actor, but the rest of the immensely talented cast as well. Yes this slice of cinema may also be one that does go a wee bit off the rails at it reaches its final destination, but when a film is this engaging and just plain fun on both sides of the camera then honestly who am I to quibble?
The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a novel known as Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, our story gets underway as we are introduced to our quasi-sorta guide through this land of confusion a guy whose codename is Ladybug. Incidentally, the reason he is given a code name in this, as we rather quickly learn, is because our hero here happens to be a long-time member of the community known as hired killers or assassins if you prefer simplicity. However, we soon learn that despite his long tenure in this community, our hero is desperately wanting to make a transition in his life to where he can take on assignments or just do things with his life that don’t involve him killing people since his luck in his chosen profession hasn’t really been what you might call all that stellar. Perhaps this is why his handler, an enigmatic female calling herself Maria Beetle, has assigned him to replace a “colleague” of sorts on a seemingly simple assignment to get aboard a bullet train (hence the title) going from Tokyo all the way to Kyoto, recover a mysterious briefcase, and then get back off the train with no one the wiser. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before we discover that there are several other hired killers on board this train as well in the forms of not only a pair of British rough and tumble types known as Tangerine and Lemon (seriously what is it with these code names?), but also a particularly skilled in the art of manipulation young female assassin known as The Prince and an American assassin whose skill with poisons has earned them the title of Hornet to name but a few. However it isn’t long before we start to realize that, amidst all the chaos and action afoot, that the assassins’ own private objectives and reasons for being on the train may in fact be connected. Suffice it to say therefore by the time this particular train ride is over fists will be thrown, bottles of Fiji water chucked at peoples’ heads, Thomas the Tank Engine (of all things) will be revealed as the prism through which someone onboard sees the world, and you, the viewer very much left wondering what is going to become of these characters and if any are going to ever make it off this genuinely crazy train in one piece let alone at all.
Now in the spirit of complete and total honesty I would like to make something absolutely crystal clear right off the bat in this section. That being that this slice of cinema is by no means an insidiously low-key film that is going to blow you away by possessing a significantly higher degree of intellect than you may have been expecting. Having said that however, this slice of cinema does also by the same token manage to carry itself with a wonderfully clear-cut wittiness to say nothing of cognizance that prove to be immensely difficult to not get on-board with. On top of that, this film’s screenwriter has done a really good job at giving us a narrative that works at the time even if things don’t always make sense in the grand scheme of things. This includes a moment near the end where all is revealed and yes it might seem plausible when it is being told to you, but I promise you the more you really ponder it, the more ridiculous it is going to become. On top of that, the film is also guilty of going off the rails at points throughout. A fact that is most assuredly the case when the film roars into Third Act Junction (not a real station) and tries to do things like have a character jump from the platform back onto a train as it is leaving. I mean don’t get me wrong: it does look fairly impressive. Yet when this film’s universe has clearly established certain parameters that should make this more difficult than how it looks it does tend to make one raise a bit of an eyebrow in incredulity. Indeed in many respects, it does feel like the story was penned and ideas were tossed around and filmed before the filmmaking team really started to think about if any of it made the least bit of sense before just shrugging their shoulders, saying “oh well”, and going back to whatever they were doing at the time. Yet whereas for some slices of cinema this might prove to be quite problematic, that’s not the case with this one. In fact, it’s in that cavalier, devil-may-care, toss in everything but the kitchen sink attitude where this film shows itself to be a fairly charming ride. Yes the further into the film you go and the more complex things begin to become, the more you find yourself really wanting to get to the bottom of everything. With that said though, this film is not one that is aiming to be a puzzle for you to solve. Instead, it’s just aspiring to be the cinematic equivalent to a ride at a carnival in the vein of the tilt-a-whirl or the rickety yet still quite fun roller coaster. A degree of fun incidentally that, behind the camera, can be attributed to film helmer David Leitch’s top-notch skill at both juggling this cast of characters, but also in utilizing his intellect on action choreography to wonderful effect here. Indeed I don’t think it a spoiler to tell you that quite a bit of this movie occurs on the titular train and Leitch manages to make it feel like it is its own distinct cinematic world onto itself here. Of course there are those who will give this film grief for not being as delightfully meta as Deadpool 2 or for not having action beats that are immediately memorable as the ones in Atomic Blonde (a misconception since I feel there are at least a couple in this film that immediately qualify). Yet what makes this slice of cinema so special is that this one decides to sort of split the check so to speak between that pair of films and as a result provides us as movie goers with a very self-aware cinematic tilt-a-whirl that knows the speed at which it is functioning and also wants to make it clear that it is very much fond of that fact. Yes, the first act that this slice of cinema is saddled with doesn’t really operate at the same frantic and kinetic pace as the rest of it, choosing instead to really participate in a lot of construction in terms of both the world and the characters. Once the action really starts taking off however, it’s very easy to forgive and forget that slowness since the film does manage to show it was absolutely essential to provide it with a fairly cohesive albeit operating at a snail’s crawl foundation so that way the rest of the movie could soar in a truly grand fashion.
Of course, it should be said that issues behind the camera aside, we as movie goers are still given some wonderful work by this film’s cast. Indeed not only is every single cast member completely invested with the material, but it also looks like each and every one of them is having an absolute blast. This starts with screen icon Brad Pitt who is most definitely in synch with his particular character and is definitely a highlight of the film overall. Indeed, as portrayed by Pitt, the character of Ladybug is one that is so desperate in his attempts to become a new person that he even chooses not to carry a pistol on this assignment out of a desire to not try and instigate any kind of violent behavior toward others let alone himself. A concept that soon proves to be a bit ironic when, as things onboard fall into no more and no less than organized chaos, he finds himself utilizing just about everything onboard at some point as a weapon to defend himself against the other killers onboard. Suffice it to say that Pitt’s natural charm, relaxed sense of humor, and oddly empathetic qualities prove to be a delightful contrast to the kinetic and chaotic action occurring all around him thus making this another terrific performance from a performer who has consistently tried to give us his best for years now. Yet it isn’t just the work on display by Pitt that is absolutely engaging in this. Indeed, in the roles of Tangerine and Lemon respectively, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are an absolutely dynamic duo to behold in this. Indeed it is not that difficult at all to believe that this duo are not only brothers, but also one of the best assassin duos this side of Mario and Luigi (or something to that effect) and the dialogue they have together is something truly special to behold. Yet for as great as they are as a team, we also see that both of these guys are just as great in their moments apart as well with particular regard to Henry who might just be one of the most personable hitmen I have seen in a movie in some time. We also get treated to a phenomenal performance in this from Joey Kind whose take on The Prince is a glorious wrinkle on the trope of the manipulative and fairly duplicitous individual. Indeed I know in the source material this character was a young Japanese guy, but by transforming the character into a still young white female (a change the author was OK with incidentally), the film is able to showcase levels of just how much of a straight up sociopath this character is that even the source material was unable to. Suffice it to say that when you also factor into the mix terrific work from such dependable players as Michael Shannon, Zazie Beets, and Hiroyuki Sanada among others you get a great cast that proves to be an absolute blast to watch from beginning to end.
All in all I’m not going to lie to you dear reader: the speeding cinematic locomotive that is Bullet Train is by no means going to be a slice of cinema that every single person out there will pick up, embrace, and watch time and time again for years to come. At the same time however, is this slice of cinema deserving of a, last I checked, 56% on Rotten Tomatoes? Absolutely not. Indeed in a weird way I can definitely see this movie operating as sort of a companion piece to the John Wick movies. A comparison I can make since, like in those movies, it literally does feel like in the world of this film (one that by and large takes on the size, shape, and dimensions of a train hurtling to its final destination wherever that may be) literally anyone aboard could be a member of that distinct collective community known as hired killers. To that end, yes this slice of cinema is by no means perfect. Sure there is style to spare, the dialogue between the characters is delightfully quirky in a Tarantino-kinda way, and the action beats in this are both well-done and actually fairly creative. At the same time however, not only does the film kinda go off the rails a little bit, but there is also not as much depth to the narrative as one might like and this slice of cinema’s character roster, despite being performed admirably by a game group of performers especially Brad Pitt who looks like he is having an absolute blast, don’t really grow or develop a whole lot as the film goes on. With all of that said however, dear reader there is no denying that I did ultimately enjoy this slice of cinema quite a bit despite those flaws. Sure there are a lot of points on this cinematically crazy train where you might be left feeling like it’s just not going anywhere you would like it to if it’s even going anywhere to begin with, but when the ride it has you going on is this much fun sometimes that’s really all you need for a film like this to work. Something this slice of cinema manages to showcase beautifully. Make of that dear reader what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Bullet Train “2022” a solid 3.5 out of 5.