REVIEW: Bullet Train [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 127 minutes
    Release Date: August 5th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Entertainment / Columbia Pictures
    Director(s): David Leitch
    Writer(s): Zak Olkewicz / Kôtarô Isaka (novel)

Why do you laugh at fate?

It was supposed to be simple. Ease his way back into the snatch and grab game. He’s not even carrying a gun—not that that ever prevented people from dying while he worked. It’s why he considered quitting. And why he’s in therapy. But he’s a new man now. Ready to think positive. Maybe even listen when his handler Maria says the “bad luck” befalling those around him is “good luck” for him. It’s not like he’s died yet. So, she names him Ladybug (Brad Pitt) as a joke (they’re lucky in Japanese culture, although perhaps not in the way they think) to replace an operative (that he hates) who called in sick on assignment. Board a train, grab a suitcase, and jump ship at the next stop.

The problem for Ladybug in both David Leitch‘s film and Kôtarô Isaka‘s novel (adapted by Zak Olkewicz) Bullet Train, however, is that he isn’t the only one working this route. There’s Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry): the men who brought the aforementioned case (and the man, played by Logan Lerman, for whom the money inside was supposed to be ransom if they hadn’t killed everyone to secure both him and it for his infamous father, White Death). There’s Kimura (Andrew Koji) and The Prince (Joey King): a desperate man seeking revenge on the person who injured his son and the psychopath guilty of that very crime who subsequently tricked him into helping her kill White Death). And a few other cameos yet to be revealed.

While some of those are known (Zazie Beetz, Bad Bunny, Michael Shannon, and Hiroyuki Sanada as Kimura’s father), others arrive via stunt casting for easy comedy. And all of them provide convenient plot progression meant to keep Ladybug, Tangerine, Lemon, Kimura, and The Prince on course. Don’t therefore be surprised when many die within minutes of appearing on-screen. Some get a flashback or two, but their expendability is a feature rather than a bug. They exist to push the main quintet into each other’s paths, creating fireworks both through close quarters fighting and witty banter. And nobody but The Prince is having fun in the process. Because while she helps manufacture their mutual dislike for one another, they were doing pretty well on that front all their own.

Thankfully I too had a lot of fun watching. The whole might feel about twenty or thirty minutes too long (more than many could stand), but I get using that extra time to complicate matters with deflection and convolution that ultimately screams the theme of destiny straight into our ears. I haven’t read the novel, but I’m going to assume it isn’t handled with the subtlety of a hammer like it is here. And yet, while the overboard nature of letting fate dictate everything that happens can prove grating, it also lets the actors have a blast due to being fed up too. We’re just bystanders after all. They’re the ones who keep finding themselves stuck between a rock and hard place with no seemingly plausible way out.

So, embrace the cartoonish insanity. Some moments are too dumb not to roll your eyes, but most stay grounded insofar as not literally being a cartoon (the climactic crash is unforgivably silly). I’m all for eccentrics like Lemon living by the lessons learned as a child from “Shining Time Station” (Henry is a highlight alongside Taylor-Johnson who does a great Ringo Starr impression, albeit for Thomas the Tank Engine rather than the character the former Beatle actually played: Mr. Conductor). I love a violently brooding backstory like that of White Death annihilating the Yakuza to become the most fearsome man on Earth. And Pitt channeling Dante Hicks energy to imbue his every reaction with “I’m not supposed to be here” vibes is the glue that holds everything together.

Tone down some of the melodrama and give Sanada someone to fight on his level (the action choreography is mostly about slamming into walls and cutting to a new angle than anything inventively fluid a la Leitch’s work on John Wick and Atomic Blonde) and Bullet Train could really soar. The comedy must therefore carry us through those less kinetic stretches with memorable performances smoothing things over. Henry and Taylor-Johnson’s rapport is lightning quick and authentically endearing with Pitt coming in as a nice foil for them to physically work their aggression out since they’d never devolve into blows themselves. King is having fun too, but her and Koji often seem like they’re in a different movie until Olkewicz needs them to come into the fold.

That’s the casualty of juggling so many characters. Whereas Beetz and Bad Bunny can go for broke in their respective five minutes of unfiltered carnage, King and Koji are beholden to a plot that needs them to stay relevant. They luckily get to interact with the others enough for her Prince to feign helplessness and lean into always being underestimated while the rest kill each other. That’s when she pops off the screen. Nothing grinds things to a halt more than self-seriousness, though, and she, along with Shannon (once we stop laughing at the hair) and Kimura’s storyline, delivers a bit too much of it. Sanada is the exception. He’s simply too good an actor not to make an equally clichéd role feel like it’s so much more.

Because this is a pretty clichéd movie. It delivers nothing we haven’t seen before (or wish we never had to see again like two of White Death’s cronies waxing on about being the Red Shirts rather than just dying so we can move on). Yet it succeeds on charisma and energy alone. I can’t help wondering how much better the novel is for having time to dig deeper and prevent everyone from being a one-dimensional cog in a carefully constructed machine hurtling towards a final battle that’s almost three decades in the making. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn Olkewicz and Leitch have dumbed things down so far to intentionally enhance that disparity. They know their adaptation is pure popcorn theatrics and refuse to pretend otherwise.

[1] Bad Bunny and Brad Pitt star in Bullet Train. Photo By: Scott Garfield. © 2022 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson star in Bullet Train. Photo By: Scott Garfield.
[3] Hiroyuki Sanada stars in Bullet Train. Photo By: Scott Garfield.

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