2022, R, 126 min. Directed by David Leitch. Starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Hiroyuki Sanada, Andrew Koji, Bad Bunny, Zazie Beetz.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 5, 2022
It takes a special kind of smart to be really, really dumb. And make no mistake, Bullet Train is a really, really dumb movie. Like, every gunshot echoes around its gloriously vacant skull. Because there's also a particular kind of smart-dumb film that is endlessly, idiotically fun, and that's what Bullet Train is.
Take the title. Bullet Train. It's got two meanings, because it's set on a Shinkansen, the Japanese highspeed railway nicknamed the bullet train, and because there are lots of bullets being fired on the train. See, bullet train. Geddit?
Not that any bullets are being fired by Ladybug (Pitt), the dumb-smart protagonist of this dumb-smart film. He's a kind-of-reformed hit man who is quite happy to take nonviolent assignments from his unseen handler, and snatching a suitcase on the route between Tokyo and Kyoto seems like a simple job. Of course, nothing's that simple. In this hyperviolent, hyperstylized, deeply silly adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka's 2010 absurdist crime novel MariaBeetle, Pitt's Ladybug is not just the center of the story but its avatar, as a series of increasingly outlandish crooks, thugs, and killers take a seat. There's British working-class hit men Lemon and Tangerine (Henry pulling off a surprisingly sharp South London accent, and Taylor-Johnson, again unrecognizable, as a bug-eyed fashion plate from 1976). Also boarding is the Wolf, played by rapper Bad Bunny, a vengeance-driven cartel killer with a narconovela tragic backstory (between this and his Spider-Man spinoff El Muerto, Bunny's agent is working miracles on his burgeoning acting career, mostly here by having him deliver almost no lines). Of course, this being Japan there must be the Yakuza, with veteran soft-spoken heavy Hiroyuki Sanada as limping mobster Takeshi and Andrew Koji as his heartbroken single-parent son, Yuichi Kimura. Meanwhile, Joey King is wandering around as a wild card spreading chaos.
That's a lot of candy-colored characters intersecting along the length of the train, which doesn't give much time for off-vehicle digressions. Fortunately the script, from Fear Street: Part Two – 1978 writer Zak Olkewicz, is built for much of its run time on flashbacks, alternate angles, cutaways to the other end of a phone call, everything possible to add extra zip and dialogue to a film that's already pretty peppy due to director David Leitch. The John Wick director abandons the glower and dour of Atomic Blonde and pushes even further past the no-holds-barred goofiness of Deadpool 2 for a big slab of high-budgeted, rapid-fire-edited slapstick that dumps plot points and setups whenever they become a burden.
It's an oddly amiable addition to the subgenre of deliberately ridiculous action comedies that include durable popcorn flicks like Crank: High Voltage and Smokin' Aces. And those kind of films, dumb as they are, are hard to do (this year, just see the oddly stilted Gunpowder Milkshake). Whether Bullet Train will have that Friday night pizza-and-beer durability will probably come down to Pitt as Ladybug. Following on from an equally goofy part as a Zen adventurer in The Lost City, here he indulges himself in a dizzy haplessness as he tries to avoid killing anyone. Every accidental murder is a source of exasperation, and Leitch goes to Rube Goldberg lengths to keep each absurd chain of coincidences plausible within the neon limits of the train's inevitable, if lengthy, trip.
Sure, Bullet Train could have been made any time in the last 40 years, with its mixture of overblown archetypes, post-Jackie Chan fight sequences, and just enough ingenuity to make it feel at least a little unique (the legendary punctuality of the Shinkansen not simply being a joke but a pivotal plot point). But that doesn't mean it's not worth the ticket price.