Bullet Train is based on a novel, and with the sheer wealth of plot on display in the film adaptation, it shows. There are a lot of characters in the film, each with a detailed backstory for why they’re on the titular train, as well as what is currently motivating them to engage in cheeky hyper-violence. Loyalties ebb and flow in tandem with pools of blood, while flashbacks fill in the blanks on an as-needed basis. It’s quite a bit of material, served up with a your-mileage-may-vary degree of post-Deadpool winking self-awareness. One could imagine that Kôtarô Isaka’s novel has a similar structure, but perhaps with less fisticuffs than the film. Oftentimes novels end up feeling either incomplete or overstuffed when translated to the big screen, but in the case of director David Leitch’s candy-colored actioner, it all comes across clean and goes down smooth — if you’re into this flavor of cinema. Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t speak to any excisions, but in a vacuum the film feels whole.
When David Leitch and Chad Stahelski pursued solo projects after changing the game with John Wick, the latter went forward with the series while the former moved to a more — for lack of better term — corporate environment. He brought us Deadpool 2 (yay!), Hobbs & Shaw (ehhhhh), and Atomic Blonde (sequel please). Bullet Train exists somewhere in the center of all three, in both style and tone. The humor isn’t as crass as the Merc with a Mouth, but it comes across in the same cocky pitch. The fight choreography is more cartoonish than was performed by Theron’s Lorraine Broughton, but it still has the same percussive, showy effect. Similar to the underwhelming Fast spin-off that couldn’t, there is some application of obvious post-production effects to sweeten the action, but whereas it felt like a crutch in Hobbs & Shaw, here it’s all part of the style.
Our entry point is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a professional baddie looking to switch gears to a more zen lifestyle. To that end he’s no longer taking hit jobs, instead filling in for a coworker on a simple theft. His objective is to board the train, snatch a specific briefcase, then get off. Should be easy, if not for the fact that, unbeknownst to him, there’s a collection of equally colorful characters with eyes and hands on the same prize. A duo of hitmen (Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a mysterious young woman (Joey King), and a vengeful father (Andrew Koji) are the main roster, with a litany of others popping in and out to make this simple mission that much harder for Ladybug.
It’s Taylor-Johnson who steals the film playing a damn near tragically straight character increasingly drawn into poor decision-making by the escalating calamity around him. If Pitt’s Ladybug is a career man backing away from his vocation, Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine is a surface-level effective worker barely outrunning a disaster of his own making — he’s just too cocky to see it. Him losing his cool over the course of the film is too much fun to watch.
I single out his performance as the best, but the fact of the matter is that all of the players understand the tone of the material and deliver it well. The villains are arch, there are no heroes, and even the passengers with no lines are all doing something lively. Between that and the excellent soundtrack (which features some incredible foreign language needledrops) there’s no denying the pure entertainment value of the film, once again with the caveat that this particular style may irritate some viewers. I get it.
One day I will consume the novel and see if it’s as expressly action-packed as the film is. What I mean is that hand-to-hand combat is not always easy to write in prose form (although the descriptive text writers for streaming shows do a pretty bang up job). I would like to know if this story was picked for adaptation in part because of how well a few fight scenes could be inserted into it. Will report back on this front at some point in the future. Another thing I’d like to know is if the frequent references made to Thomas the Tank Engine were added after the fact. I am not aware of that show’s international appeal — whether or not it made its way to Japan in such a capacity that an author might ruminate on the thematic weight of it (I also understand that the Japanese transit system is so advanced that perhaps Thomas and his buddies missed the cutoff). Oftentimes these references feel very cutesy and corny, even if they ultimately pay off in a fun way. Another reference, which slyly copies a classic piece of Jackie Chan’s comedic fight choreography is the kind of thing that not just entertains, but serves as a reminder that filmmakers like Leitch are carrying a torch for action that so many filmmakers (well, studios, really) have opted to move beyond. It’s lovely to see.
And that’s the rub with Bullet Train: it’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Much respect to this mostly successful attempt at managing cinematic chaos. It’s another movie that makes my job as a critic seem pointless — if you watched the trailer for this movie and thought it looked good, you will almost definitely be a fan. If you saw it and were put off by this particular flavor of cinema, then you will likely hate it. There’s no accounting for taste.
Directed by David Leitch
Written by Zak Olkewicz, Kôtarô Isaka
Starring Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry
Rated R, 126 minutes