There’s a running joke in my house where my husband will turn to me and just say “Johnny, why do you hate fun?” This stems from my review of John Carter, a film whomst I believe is Quite Bad. I got a fair amount of backlash for it online, with one commenter accusing me of “hating fun” because the film was just supposed to be entertaining. Since I guess it’s impossible for a film to be both a good time and well-made? Well, people of the jury, I can demonstrably prove that I can enjoy a big, dumb, spectacle of a film as much as anyone. May I present…Bullet Train.
Our main character is code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a mercenary who’s been instructed by his handler (Sandra Bullock) to grab a briefcase off of a bullet train going from Tokyo to Kyoto. Get on, grab the case, get off. Simple, no? Unfortunately, Ladybug isn’t the only one after the case. There’s also the bruiser “twins” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), as well as a manipulative young woman called The Prince (Joey King) who also want the case and are willing to kill to get it. On top of that, bad luck seems to follow Ladybug around, and new twists and complications appear with every stop on the line including a vengeful Mexican killer and an escaped, highly venomous boomslang snake loose on the train.
Bullet Train belongs to a genre that I can only refer to as assassinpunk. Nearly every character with lines who isn’t working for the train company is some kind of assassin, hired gun, or a person that directs them. The film revolves entirely around their schemes, the setting and cast is international, and there’s a heavy focus on style, creative combat, quirky conversations, and rising action. Which sadly comes at the expense of character growth and narrative depth. It’s a film that focuses entirely on being in the moment and is less concerned with the world around it.
And it all works. Beautifully. At least for the most part.
Let’s get one thing straight right away. Bullet Train is not a terribly smart movie, although it does possess a distinct wit and self-awareness that’s hard to dislike. It’s very clever but not actually very intelligent. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, basing his work on a book by Kōtarō Isaka, is very good about constructing a narrative that works in the moment even while it doesn’t make much sense in the bigger picture. There’s a great use of Chekov’s Everything here; every piece of intel and every notable prop has a proper pay-off at some point. There is absolutely no energy or resource wasted. A Fiji water bottle that starts in the possession of one character but ends up at a random place in the climax gets its own minute-long, POV montage showing exactly what happened to it over the course of the film to arrive in the place it does.
That being said, those Chekov moments don’t always make sense in the grander scheme of the narrative. During the climax, there’s a relatively long info dump that explains why so many assassins and criminals are all on one train heading for the same destination at once. It seems logical as you hear it, but the more you think about it, the more it all seems so improbable. It’s almost as if the narrative was written first and the justification added at the last minute.
But therein lies the film’s charm. It has an infectious “Yes and…” kind of energy that’s very hard to deny. The longer the film goes on, the more complicated the situation gets, and the more part of you is dying to figure out what it all means. However, it’s less a mystery to figure out as much as it is a carnival ride to experience. Don’t think about anything too much, just let it happen. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the what that you forget about even caring about the why.
A good deal of that is due to director David Leitch’s excellent handling of the myriad of characters as well as his knowledge of space and fight choreography. The vast majority of the film takes place inside the train itself, and Leitch makes it feel like a world all its own. This is the man who gave us both Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde, after all. While it’s not as metatextual as the former and doesn’t have any instantly iconic scenes like the latter, it sort of cuts the difference between the two. It’s a self-aware whirligig that knows exactly how fast it’s spinning and wants you to know that it loves that about itself.
Admittedly, the first act of the film is relatively slow and sedate compared to the rushing action following it, engaging in a lot of establishing moments. It doesn’t quite leave the station until at least 30 minutes in, and it threatens to feel like a disappointment up to that point. Once the action really starts taking off however, it’s very easy to forgive and forget that slowness; it was necessary to get that foundation laid so the rest of the film could flourish. That sadly doesn’t stop some of the scenes in that first half-hour feel drawn out, even to the point of being self-indulgent.
Even during those slower bits, we’re treated to some great work by the cast. Everybody is completely on board for this film, and it looks like everyone is fully enjoying their work. Brad Pitt is especially on point here. Ladybug is trying to turn over a new leaf, soaking in new age self-help and holistic psychotherapy tropes. He refuses to take a gun on his job since he doesn’t want to encourage violence, but then he ends up using almost anything he can get his hands on as a weapon. His effortless charisma, laid-back humor, and strangely empathic tendencies contrast sharply with the slick, highly-stylized combat around him, and it works perfectly.
He’s not the only star performer here. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry make for a perfect pair, their chemistry instant and magnetic. It’s easy to believe that these men have spent their entire lives and careers together, and their banter pops and sparkles. Both men do a great job on their own, as well, especially Henry. He may just be the most lovable assassin we’ve seen on screen in a very long time. Joey King is also excellent, her Prince being a twist on the magnificent, manipulative bastard archetype. In the book, The Prince was a young Japanese man, but changing the character to a young white woman (something Isaka himself had absolutely no issues with) allows us to explore entirely new levels to The Prince’s sociopathy. White girl tears are sometimes all the weapons The Prince needs to get what she wants.
What Bullet Train lacks in coherence and depth, it more than makes up for with its wicked style and its sheer amount of brutal, giddy combat and quirky, twisted characters. It’s all about rising action and piling on the tropes, and that’s just fine by me. I can’t hate a film that includes a Japanese cover of “Holding Out For a Hero” during its climax. This train might sometimes feel like it’s not heading anywhere in particular, but it’s one hell of a ride all the same. In short: it’s fun, and I love it.
FBOTU: 7 out of 10 / B