I came to the theater to watch David Leitch’s Bullet Train; I saw Bullet Train; I liked Bullet Train. A lot.
It is not a perfect movie by any stretch. However, it doesn’t claim to be either. But it does come with a brilliant homage to John Badham’s classic, Saturday Night Fever.
Leitch, who recently gave us Deadpool 2 for then-Fox and the Hobbs & Shaw spin-off of the Fast & Furious series of films, and made his directorial debut with John Wick, takes this crazy, speeding locomotive where few action films have taken us before.
Brad Pitt plays “Ladybug,” a seasoned but unlucky assassin in Japan assigned to recover a package. “Ladybug,” who has recently taken to therapy and has thoughts of retiring from his chosen profession, is a professional first, meaning he takes his job as seriously as the following professional on the train; he’s just not as serious. Pitt’s performance reminded me a lot of Rusty in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven – whip-smart, cracking non-sequiturs at just the right moment as life speeds by him.
Suffice it to say, Leitch’s direction is lightning quick, and the action never lets up until the train reaches its destination. This works for and against the film’s pace, as it seems unnecessarily overstuffed and bloated with action. And yet, each of the characters has a function in Zak Olkewicz’s (Fear Street: Part Two – 1978) story that’s a cross between the crass humor of The Gentleman, the solid characterizations, and their competitive objectives in Knives Out and just a pinch of Ronin for good measure.
Fortunately for this Bullet Train, the stop isn’t just Brad Pitt. The remainder of these shady characters is well-rounded out. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s “Tangerine” and Brian Tyree Henry’s “Lemon” are British assassins after the same package, both cracking smartly, sweetly, and acidly. Andrew Koji plays Yuichi Kimura, a Japanese killer whose story puts this crazy train ride in motion, while Zazie Beetz plays “The Hornet,” who nearly and nastily steals the show. Benito A. Martinez Ocascio’s “The Wolf” brings his cojones to bear, while Logan Lerman’s “The Son” is a quiet factor in the story. I did want to take a yardstick to Joey King’s “The Prince,” an assassin in the guise of a schoolgirl, though I know corporal punishment has long been banished, as King’s sweet innocence lays victim to many.
Each character has a connection to “Ladybug”; however, that isn’t why they are brought together. Hiroyuki Sanada’s “The Elder” and Michael Shannon’s “White Death” are, and their revelations paint the way home.
Bullet Train was initially developed by Antoine Fuqua as a violent action thriller. Some aspects remain in the story, especially the stunt work, of which Brad Pitt did 95% of his stunts. The story morphed into the action-comedy we got in the final product, which plays to Leitch’s strengths. Bullet Train is more successful in this regard than he was in Deadpool 2, but Olkewicz’s story leaves a bit to be desired.
The film runs a relatively long 126 minutes as the world around the train speeds by. It is important to remember those words of distinction. Even though Elisabet Ronaldsdottir’s editing matches the train’s rate and the action, some parts of the film feel like they went off the rails. Despite these technical issues, between character flashbacks and a heartfelt, philosophical conversation between Ladybug, the Elder, and Yuichi, the meaning of these events and how each is connected to Ladybug comes through clearly; Michael Shannon’s “White Death” brings the third act and the story to a satisfying close.
I seriously hemmed and hawed over Bullet Train. I’ve read accusations leveled at the film for whitewashing several characters or that it is so overloaded with action that it becomes too much. In service of the film, these actors did their jobs brilliantly. Brad Pitt’s “Ladybug” is the nerve center of this fun, likable, stylish action comedy, the likes of which we haven’t gotten in a long time.
Bullet Train is best seen in IMAX if you can.
Directed by David Leitch
Screenplay by Zak Olkewicz based on Maria Beetle (published in English as Bullet Train) by Kōtarō Isaka
Starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martinez Casio, Sandra Bullock
R, 126 minutes, Sony Pictures Releasing