David Leitch's glib, ultra-violent, and somewhat fun Bullet Train may remind you of an early Robert Rodriguez film. With its colorful bad guys, assaultive bloodbaths, and occasional dark comedy Bullet Train feels like a throwback in some ways. The trouble is that the sheer amount of over-the-top gore and winking self-satisfaction wears thin over this two-hour movie. The one-note characters and overly convoluted plotting have a lot to do with that.
Leitch comes from a stuntman background, working on the John Wick films before taking the helm as a director on Atomic Blonde. That film still remains his best thanks to a script that allows its main character some shading. Brad Pitt is one charming movie star and so maybe he doesn't need too much character nuance to carry a film. As successful as he is at making a bucket hat look cool and breezing through this film with that California dude energy he brought to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, even he can't help but get lost in this needlessly convoluted adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka's 2010 novel Maria Beetle.
While I have not read the book, I am aware of the controversy around the casting of most of the principal characters. While the book features Japanese assassins, the movie gives them an international makeover. The plot should be simple, a bunch of assassins finds themselves on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. They are all after interlocking things, whether it be revenge or a suitcase full of money. At its core, the story is about family and fate. One can imagine these themes have poignancy in the novel but here the stakes are rendered ineffective due to the stylized extremes of the storytelling.
That style involves countless, indulgent flashbacks. While these do eventually connect, they feel jarring in the flow of the story. This is especially true when a character is given a lengthy backstory only to die within a few minutes of being introduced.
Bullet Train opens with a distraught father Kimura (Andrew Koji) watching his son on life support. We learn Kimura is a low-level criminal and screw-up whose son was pushed from a roof. The Elder (the great Hiroyuki Sanada) is Kimura's disapproving father who tells his son he must take revenge and protect his family. Enter Ladybug (Pitt) a mercenary who is trying to change his ways and resolve things with less violence.
Ladybug is sent on the train to recover a briefcase. His paths soon cross with many characters including two British assassins going by the names Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). On board the train is The Prince (Joey King) a clever killer who uses her innocent schoolgirl act to disarm her foes. The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) kills by poisoning and The Wolf (Bad Bunny) is on board to avenge the death of his wife. There is also an escaped deadly snake just for fun. How these killers all come together is a mess but along the way, some fun moments stand out.
Henry, Johnson, and Pitt all do their best here despite a script that often works against some of their strengths. Pitt is best when relying on his physical abilities. He can make using a smart toilet funny. The action is often kinetic and wild. Leitch knows how to stage hand-to-hand combat and it shows in the train's tight setting. He uses everything in the train to add to these action scenes. The trouble is, why do we care about the outcome of each fight? The characters are so soulless that it is unclear if there is anyone to root for. Add in the cartoonish physics and near superhero levels of strength and the action lacks any tension. It can be admired but it is rarely felt as a result.
Full of snark, gore, and cameos, Bullet Train is not without some pleasures. I really did enjoy Brad Pitt here, but that speaks more to his movie star charm than the film. A movie star like him can carry a bad movie. This is proof of it. I wanted to like the rest of the film but it is so drunk on its own cleverness that it forgets to make us care. After two hours of it, I was ready to get off.