You know summer is slowing down when Bullet Train marks the continuing tradition of releasing an action movie open during the first weekend of August. An adaptation of the 2010 Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, director David Leitch knows a thing or two when it comes to pulling together entertaining action for the past year. The stuntman turned action is best known for his uncredited work for the first John Wick. But we have known him for Atomic Blonde (which left more to be desired), Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw; the latter two I rather enjoyed and aimed to please franchise fans. His latest sees many familiar faces across a two-hour thrill ride that, while very flawed in a few spots, lets you know it’ll be an unforgettable ride for some.
Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is an unlucky hitman at the point of his life where he wants to find Zen without resorting to violence, as he usually ends up in the wrong place, at the wrong time, convincing himself he has bad luck. His handler, “Maria Beetle” (Sandra Bullock), has him back in the game for a last-minute assignment to retrieve a silver briefcase off a high-speed bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. That should’ve been a simple snatch-and-grab job and getting off at the next stop lined up for him without bringing a gun on the job. However, this is a task more difficult than expected when several fascinating assassins with individual motivations might have something in common.
Something about an action movie primarily taking place on a fast-moving train intrigued me when I first heard about this project. However, Bullet Train lets you know that this won’t be a serious meditation on fate when you know you come for the over-the-top and unexpectedly bloody action. That’s already a guarantee since this had Leitch behind the camera. The style and tone he sets up here serve as a throwback to the early 2000s movies when a bunch of action movies with big stars mixed with the noticeable shades of what people liked about the quality of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie’s films, especially implementing cool dialogue. Dealing with a bunch of characters isn’t always easy. They hold over well enough by a clever script from Zak Olkewicz that has moments ranging from providing funny moments to some unpredictable plot points I didn’t see coming in a story filled with crazy misunderstandings.
Amongst the talents they got here, I thought Brad Pitt was great, as always. Seeing him taking on more leadership roles at his age convinces me he still has the perfect amount of charisma to make almost any film work. It’s just funny how his character Ladybug wants to find peace, doesn’t want to cause violence with bad luck all around him anymore, and eventually gets roped up over a simple job that is easy to accomplish. This is a silly character, for sure, but it’s a reminder that he’s underrated in terms of comedic roles he takes on. He even performed most of his own stunts, which I overlooked. Of course, that helps since Leitch previously worked with Pitt as his stunt double on Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. My other favorite performances that’ll get everyone talking came from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as the twin assassins, Tangerine and Lemon (yes, like the fruits), who were hired to find the son (Logan Lerman) of a mysterious Russian crime lord. I didn’t expect to love these two together. Their chemistry and brotherly banter made for the best character moments throughout. Both of them get their hands dirty in a fight or two with Ladybug and get the film’s laughs, including Lemon’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine and the wisdom of pointing out how to read people like a BuzzFeed quiz. Taylor-Johnson and Henry’s performances worked so well I wouldn’t mind watching a whole spin-off of these two or a straight-up prequel before these events.
The rest of the cast gets their due with the time they were offered, though they didn’t stand out the same way as Taylor-Johnson and Henry. There’s Andrew Koji (“The Father” seeking vengeance on who pushed his son off a roof), Joey King (the manipulative “The Prince”), Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Elder”), Zazie Beets (“The Hornet”), Michael Shannon (“The White Death”), Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny (“The Wolf”) and Sandra Bullock as Ladybug’s handler Maria Beetle who’s just talking to him on the phone. The minimum account of screen time for most of them was predictable where a scene will lead to with Ladybug. Sanada doesn’t get much to do until later on, but it would’ve been a waste not to have him involved in the action, and it was useless getting Shannon since he doesn’t appear in person until near the end.
Still, I went curious, albeit tired, to see why it’s been getting more mixed reviews than I thought. And that’s because it can have difficulty finding its groove to settle on. So my reaction went from not feeling like it’s off to a great start to surprisingly enjoying it, ending with still good but going a bit all over the place near the end. Bullet Train starts complicated to follow what’s going down, and it introduces these characters with stylized title cards and interconnected flashbacks of what brought them on the train in the first place. Safe to say, the story goes in a direction that needs you to suspend disbelief. Everything levels out afterward where I was able to get invested in the fast-paced fight sequences inspired by the work of Jackie Chan in close quarters that Leitch nailed for the type of film he’s aiming for here. While it can be darkly funny sometimes, not all the jokes made me laugh when they tried too hard. Then once it reached the third act, there was a point where I thought it was gonna wrap up, yet the action drives the point home in a big fashion. So despite those problems I personally had with it, I’m leaning a bit positively toward this. The one bummer is that I didn’t end up loving it to be the closer, but I expected it to be worse.
Bullet Train hits some speed bumps in the plot, but it’s still a fun ride reminiscent of other over-the-top movies in the subgenre. Bottom Line: The action itself delivers while Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Brian Tyree Henry were the MVPs above all. It seems like the kind of experience audiences will love or find riddled with disappointment. It’s a bit messy, but I’ll give it another watch in the future.
Bullet Train is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 126 Minutes. Rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. Studio: Sony/ Columbia Pictures.