‘Bullet Train’ Review: Brad Pitt leads this high-speed battle royale

The high speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours and 15 minutes—just the right amount of time to shoot an animated over-the-top action movie in which half a dozen killers shoot, stab, and otherwise perforate their pretty little faces in pursuit of a briefcase full of cash. It’s a high-stakes game of hot potato choreographed and performed by the director of Atomic Blonde David Leachin which the self-deprecating Brother Pete wears a bucket hat and big glasses, Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play feuding “twin” hitmen Lemon and Tangerine, and “Princess” wedding crasher Joey King (known here as “Prince”) is a cunning assassin who can fake cry on command.

These characters—and half a dozen other deadly so-and-so’s, with names like “The Hornet” (Zazi Beetz) and “The Wolf” (Benito Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. “Bad Bunny”)—are identified by giant on-screen labels superimposed on their frosted glasses, the way Martin Scorsese or Guy Ritchie like to present their ensembles. “Bullet Train” seems to come from the same brain as “Snatch”, wearing its pop style on its sleeve – a mixture of martial arts, manga and influences from Gabby’s Kill Bill-level killer movies.

Adapting Kotaro Issaka’s complete MariaBeetle novel, Leach and screenwriter Zach Olkiewicz make each of these characters twice as eccentric as necessary so as not to lose the audience’s attention for a moment. Maria (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is the bug in Pete’s ear, guiding the new non-violent tough guy (a detail recently seen in the Bodyguard movies) through what is supposed to be the lightest job of his career : get on the bullet train in Tokyo get the MacGuffin and get off at the next stop. Cha-ching goes choo-choo. Except that Ladybug (as Pitt’s character is named) is miserable as hell, and there seem to be more murderers crammed together here than Agatha Christie could fit on the Orient Express.

Meanwhile, innocent bystanders are minimal. There’s a frantic woman who keeps Ladybug and Lemon quiet when their fistfight gets too destructive, but after a few stops, practically the only passengers left on board are those who would literally kill for that briefcase. There’s also the incredibly venomous Boomslang snake, whose venom kicks in after 30 seconds, causing victims to bleed from the eyes, like poor Logan Lerman (the first character to bite her, serving up the rest of the movie in “Weekend at Bernie’s” mode).

The film’s strategy is to keep throwing deadly obstacles at Pete’s character, who gets the armored Toomey fairly easily at first. Ladybug is remarkably good at improvising her way out of trouble – even when the film literally goes off the rails at the end. Creating all this chaos aboard a train wasn’t Leitch’s idea, although the stuntman-turned-director made the most of this limitation by setting visually interesting stage scenes in various carriages. Ladybug and the Wolf have a knife fight in the bar area. Later, he and Tangerine trash the kitchen. There’s some funny stuff going on in a neon-lit part of the train, featuring the mascot for a local children’s show, who keeps getting punched in the face. Even the toilets are fair game.

The fight scenes look relatively original, which is impressive in itself considering how many other creative filmmakers are trying to break out in the genre. Leitch tends to approach these juxtapositions the way Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire did their dance numbers: The violence shouldn’t be taken literally (which is sometimes difficult given how brutal the gore can be), but -soon appreciated mostly for their choreography and ability to surprise.

Still, there’s something callous about how casually Leach takes human life. Bullet Train represents one of the first and most ambitious pandemic-driven blockbusters to hit the screen, demonstrating that Leitch and company felt confident enough that the world would return to normal that they could make Prince to push a six-year-old off a roof only to lure the child’s father (Andrew Koji, definitely the film’s weakest link) onto the train. King’s character is the real deal, dressed in a black beanie and pink schoolgirl outfit. She is a heartless manipulator, often posing as an innocent victim in order to capture her prey.

Ultimately, “Bullet Train” reveals that behind this not-so-random gathering of killers is an elaborate plan by the dreaded Japanese underworld boss, the White Death (Michael Shannon), to avenge his wife’s death. But he’s not the only one who’s lost a loved one, neither as Samurai Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) demonstrates when he boards a stop or two before Kyoto.

The geographic logic of “Bullet Train” doesn’t make much sense, but then the film looks like it was produced without the principals, without even setting foot in Japan. And why not? It’s essentially a live-action cartoon, with high-profile cameos sprinkled in for extra laughs. Stylistically, Leitch tries his best to channel the likes of Tarantino and Ritchie, even if the dialogue and mock-British accents aren’t strong enough to merit such comparisons. (What does Michael Shannon play anyway?)

Tangerine and Lemon are likable characters, even though the latter keeps talking about how everything he learned about humans came from Thomas the Tank Engine (which explains a lot about how reductive the film’s understanding of human nature is). Likewise, Ladybug constantly quotes corny self-help aphorisms that invariably elicit laughs. It might be a fun enough ride, but such notable lines drive home that neither the characters nor the film they inhabit are particularly profound. To quote Calvin and Hobbes, their train of thought is still boarding the station.

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