A still from Bullet Train trailer. (courtesy: Sony Pictures Entertainment)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada
Director: David Leitch
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
With Brad Pitt aboard, the Bullet Train ride, as manic as it is messy, is not without its moments of fun. The thrills (huge dollops of it) and humour (of a largely erratic variety) in this bursting-at-the-seams action comedy relies squarely on the lead actor to propel it forward. Not all the movement in the deliriously paced movie is in the right direction.
Peppered with fleeting, fragmentary flashbacks designed to piece together the back stories of the colourful and dangerous men and women who unleash mayhem on a Tokyo-to-Kyoto shinkansen - "bullet train" - the movie rarely allows itself to slow down even when it is in danger of running off the rails.
The disorienting velocity at its pulpy heart is clearly meant to serve as a camouflage for the many flaws that plague the movie. The naked eye can spot the yawning gaps in the writing - inevitable in a production that banks on formulaic means to deliver big, brassy action, riding on the shoulders of a star seeking to reinvent himself for the next phase of his career.
Indeed, no matter what director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, the drawbacks of Bullet Train stare us in the face. Always high on energy and colour, the film is low on genuine thrust and struggling to cohesive whole out of its disparate elements.
Adapted from a Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isako, Bullet Train takes liberties with both the characters and the plot details that made the book a twisty, darkly comic story. The film turns many of the principal characters White, which would have made greater sense had it played out in an American city. Since it doesn't, the limited space that Japanese faces get in the actioner is glaring and galling.
The protagonist, a reluctant, low-on-luck hitman, and a motley bunch of other killers who board the high-speed train in pursuit of specific goals that, as it transpires, are interconnected are each other's throats.
Brad Pitt stars as a hitman codenamed Ladybug. He hopes the moniker will end his streak of bad luck and muffed-up missions. But that isn't his only problem - the man has lost his appetite for acts of killing, having stumbled upon the benefits of the pursuit of peace - both inner and worldly.
His handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock, a disembodied voice for the most part), who issues directives in the protagonist's earpiece, talks him into accepting the seemingly harmless, snatch-and-grab job of retrieving a briefcase from the bullet train. Ladybug isn't exactly Maria Beetle's go-to man. Her first-choice operative is down with a stomach bug, leaving the handler with no option but to fall back on Ladybug.
No sooner does Ladybug half-heartedly hop on to the train - and without a gun at that - than he figures out that there are several other assassins on board with varied objectives but overlapping motives. Apart from the dangers they pose to Ladybug, a highly poisonous snake, stolen from a zoo, is on the loose on the bullet train and a severe threat to the passengers.
Two mismatched British assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), are on the train to protect a ruthless mob boss's kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) and ensure that the briefcase does not fall into the wrong hands.
Tangerine, cocky and cold-blooded, and Lemon, whose work ethics and judgement of people rests on lessons he has drawn from a children's television show, are temperamentally and in terms of appearance poles apart. They call themselves the Twins.
They have a history with Ladybug and would love to see him out of the way. But the Zen-like Ladybug goes about his job with uncanny reserve - a trait that Pitt revels in embodying. He is an action hero who has learnt to take his misfortunes in his stride and is keen to give the world a chance to do the same.
Although it is more Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino than Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, the violence on the screen is over-the-top and unrelenting. In Bullet Train, Prince - in the book, the character is a young man - is a girl (Joey King) whose luck never deserts her and she pretends to a clueless, schoolgirlish damsel. On a mission entirely her own, she draws a Japanese hitman Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) to the train using means that are brutally self-serving and reprehensible. Several other trained killers appear one after another as the train hurtles towards a point of no return.
The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), Yuichi's father, a Mexican gangster Wolf (Bad Bunny) determined to avenge a murderous attack on his boss at a wedding feast, and Hornet (Zazie Beetz), who, too, has no love lost for Ladybug. All the assassins on the bullet train are connected to each other by the yakuza overlord, White Death, who has given Tangerine and Lemon a job and constantly sends his men to keep track of their progress.
At one point, Tangerine instructs Lemon to shoot first and then look for the answers. That appears to be the film's overarching motto. It rattles along at breakneck speed, drawing upon half-baked witticisms about peace, luck and the futility of anger. Needless to say, most of these lines are reserved for Brad Pitt and he delivers them with undisguised glee. But that is hardly enough to keep the action running off track.
While the star seems to be having a lot of fun, the breathless action and the garish colour palette smothers all possibility of Bullet Train being a consistently gripping actioner.
The whitewashing of the characters is sought to be offset with one throwaway line by a Japanese gangster when confronted with two White men pretending to be The Twins. "You look like twins," the yakuza quips. Doesn't that echo what visitors to Japan might say when they are unable to tell one local man from another? The brief reversal of gaze isn't compensation enough for White/Black stars taking away roles that should have rightfully gone to Japanese actors.
Bullet Train does not lack momentum. What it runs out of pretty quickly is consistency. Hard as he may try, Brad Pitt does not have enough backing from the screenplay to pull off a miracle and prevent the ride from running aground.