None other than the great Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov who, in stating the iron-clad rules of dramaturgy, declared that “You don’t introduce a bullet train in the first act unless said bullet train literally and figuratively goes off the rails in the third act.” Rules, even rules concocted by world-class Russian playwrights, were and continue to be made to be broken. In the case of stunt choreographer turned director David Leitch (Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde), that rule may or may not have been broken by the time his latest film Bullet Train reaches its destination after a two-hour-plus running time, but it’s fun imagining what an action director of Leitch’s talent and experience would do with that particular scenario.
Unfortunately, the thought experiment is far better than the end result. Before that lukewarm, underwhelming finale, however, Bullet Train fulfills its implicit promise to deliver a predictable mix of stunt-heavy action (props to the actors for handling many of their own action scenes), quippy and blackly humorous one-liners, and a typically game cast who appear to be having the time of their pampered, well-fed lives. Beyond that, any expectations are bound to be frustrated by Leitch’s over-reliance on a Tarantino-influenced plot, repetitive dialogue, and cartoonish characters far removed from the motivations, desires, or even thoughts of anyone living in the real world.
Not that Bullet Train doesn’t have its fair share of superficial pleasures. With a reasonably large budget, ace-level, neon-drenched production design, and Leitch’s clean, clear, unobtrusive approach to filming and editing action, Bullet Train qualifies as a relatively unobjectionable time-waster (ultra-violence aside, that is). And with Brad Pitt as a reluctant, self-help-obsessed assassin code-named “Ladybug,” prone to bad luck in relaxed, cool dude mode, it’s hard, if not impossible, to actively root against Bullet Train. It’s just as hard, though, to root for it in any meaningful way too.
The semi-convoluted plot centers on the semi-retired Ladybug’s latest assignment: a simple snatch-and-go grab on the aforementioned bullet train that travels between Tokyo and Kyoto. Per his handler, Maria Beetle (voiced by Sandra Bullock), once Ladybug finds a briefcase with a particular sticker on the handle, he can grab it up, wait until the train pulls into the next station, and get off, assignment accomplishment. It’s not, of course. Before Ladybug can step off the train, he comes face-to-face with a snarling, vengeance-seeking assassin, the Wolf (Bad Bunny), forcing Ladybug to both miss the stop and defend himself against an onslaught of furious punches, kicks, and knife slashes with whatever else happens to be handy.
Surviving his encounter with the Wolf is just the start for Ladybug. For reason or reasons that at least initially remain unknown, the bullet train’s jam-packed with assassins, including Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a mismatched pair of Brits lugging the screwed-up son (Logan Lerman) to a forced reunion with his crime-boss father, the White Death, the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), an American assassin with a specialty in snake venom, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), another fail-son hoping to make amends for his carelessness, his father (Hiroyuki Sanada), identified only as the Elder, and a pint-sized, twenty-something, the Prince (Joey King), who’s either an innocent abroad with a mischievous streak or the potentially terrifying embodiment of chaotic evil.
As the duplicitous characters cross, re-cross, and triple-cross each other’s paths, often with violent, bloody results, Bullet Train doesn’t so much speed up tension-wise toward an action-heavy finish as it stalls permanently via a combination of ill-timed, underwritten humor, and a major cameo that’s meant to be both shocking and surprising, but instead qualifies as neither. Still, at least Pitt, a recent Oscar winner for his supporting role in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, had a great time making Bullet Train, handling the film’s strenuous physical demands with flexibility, dexterity, and the agility of an actor two or three decades his junior.
Bullet Train opens in North America on Friday, August 5th, via Sony Pictures Releasing.