While watching the early work of a series of directors comes to mind bullet trainincluding Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Joe Carnahan and Timur Bekmambetov. The difference is that those filmmakers have largely moved on from this kind of offensive carnage, which will numb you with its onslaught of slick dark comedy, escalating carnage, and over-the-top gore. David Leitch’s directing credits — Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw – are tightly chained to his stunt background, occasionally with entertaining results. But his latest is so busy delivering violent action with a smug wink that the twisted plot and monotonous characters get annoying very quickly.
Leitch has served as Brad Pitt’s stunt double multiple times, so there’s a certain symmetry in him that guides a film that relies so extensively on the star’s indifferent charisma. But even Pitt making a bucket hat look cool can’t save this painstaking adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 novel. Maria Beetlewritten by Zak Olkewicz.
It comes down to
A high octane bore.
Unlike the book, in which all the murderers who meet on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto are Japanese, most of the main characters have had an international makeover, which has prompted objections to money laundering online. Core members of the creative team, including the novelist, have defended the casting choices, insisting that realism isn’t a huge factor in the setting or characters. But it’s perhaps telling that it’s only when the reliably compelling Hiroyuki Sanada plays a key role in the climactic action that anyone on screen gets a semblance of depth.
This is a thriller about family, fate and fortune in which the stakes are neutralized by the comic book extremes of the story. bullet train begins with distraught father Kimura (Andrew Koji), a low-ranking criminal, standing over the hospital bed where his young son is on life support after being pushed off the roof of a building. Sanada plays the boy’s grandfather, identified only as The Elder (like all the other characters, with bilingual text on screen), a sternly disapproving man who orders his drunken son to take revenge and restore the family’s honor.
That core story may be entangled in the most stereotypical tropes of Asian cinema, but it doesn’t deserve to be so gleefully brushed aside by Pitt’s character, who saunters through the streets of Tokyo under the operative name of Ladybug to a Japanese cover of ” Stay alive.” Convinced that he is terribly lucky, leading to frequent accidental deaths on his assignments, Ladybug is a recent therapy convert who is determined to resolve conflict peacefully. But his handler (Sandra Bullock, invisible until the end) gets him between the quips to get back to work and retrieve a briefcase from the bullet train.
His mission proves more complicated than expected when it overlaps with the work of two British assassins by the names Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), whose bickering doesn’t hide their lifelong brotherly bond. Also on board is The Prince (Joey King), a second-generation assassin who deftly uses her innocent schoolgirl appearance to disarm her enemies. The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is a poison expert who spends much of the action incognito. One of her victims, The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, aka rapper Bad Bunny), boards a train to avenge the loss of his wife at their wedding in Mexico. And there is also a deadly snake, stolen from the zoo.
Ladybug continues to work on his personal growth and empathy for deadly adversaries by offering slack pop psych maxims like “Hurt people hurt people.” But he shares his share of the pain, just like everyone else on the way to Kyoto, where the dreaded Russian underworld king known as The White Death (Michael Shannon) awaits them all with his squad of assassins.
It’s disheartening to see so many capable actors being used so poorly. Even if it’s somewhat amused to watch Henry, with a London working-class accent, lay out Lemon’s professional encounters according to the patrons learned from the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s books, the jokes are laborious. Pitt gets a laugh and gives his hair a quick blow with the air-dry function on an automated toilet. But most of the time, the writing tries too hard to allow for the kind of effortlessly funny persona that the actor is best at.
Likewise the strenuous action and jumbled plot mechanics devised to bring everyone together. Leitch, cameraman Jonathan Sela and the stunt team give their best by staging dynamic battles in the train’s cramped compartments, involving gun violence, knife and sword play and armed use of everything else at hand, from laptops to water bottles to a plush mascot. . But for a movie with so much fleeting physicality and bruises, there’s a slowness about the whole thing, a soullessness that melts any contrived grin. We don’t care who gets beaten to a pulp or shot to pieces, because there are no characters to advocate for – good or bad.
There are, of course, the obligatory ironic needle drops, including “Holding Out for a Hero” in Japanese, the early 60s pop crossover hit “Sukiyaki” and songs by Englebert Humperdinck and Peter, Paul and Mary. And there are cameos – big names that go uncredited to add to the already overqualified ensemble. One of them, who plays the root of a lot of trouble, who quit the job that went to Ladybug, is such a groaningly obvious casting that you’ll wonder how we escaped from him with so little. If you’re more than two hours late, you might be thinking about escaping unless you’re smart enough to dodge this bullet.