“Bullet Train” feels like an adaptation of a dream dreamt by a college bro studying finance who tells you how he’s “super into Asian chicks” the very first time you meet him. It is, in actuality, based on the book by Japanese author Kôtarô Isaka. He has said publicly that he’s okay with the film’s whitewashing of the characters because they are “not real people.” Weird way to talk about Brad Pitt, but totally his call! Now ask him if he’s okay with his novel playing on screen like a less-restrained Tarantino riff… “Less-restrained Tarantino” sounds like a failed MMA submission hold and also a potentially serious criticism of a film.
Thankfully, “Bullet Train” is mostly just pleasantly messy. It wants to be a combo of “Free Fire,” “Die Hard,” and “Kill Bill” but brings a lot more “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag” meets “Smokin’ Aces” energy to the party. Various plot points and character backstories are held for cheeky “reveals,” but the actual narrative is little more than a “wrong place, wrong time” and “dig two graves” mash-up. Pitt is Ladybug, an unlucky assassin/general criminal. He boards a train in Tokyo to retrieve a briefcase guarded by two other assassins/general criminals called Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Emblematic of the entire film’s cleverness deficit, despite lots of discussion about all the cutesy code names, nobody clarifies why they actually use them. Even “Reservoir Dogs” gave a brief explanation why crayons got involved.
Ladybug soon discovers that not only are Tangerine and Lemon aboard, so are a slew of other assassin/general criminals all somehow related to White Death (Michael Shannon). Whatever else this movie achieves, “White Death” is now how Shannon should be referred to moving forward. Sprinkle in a few giggle-but-not-guffaw cameos, way too much forced sincerity, and a spectacularly cartoonish climax, and the result is a forgettable spectacle with not quite enough style to make up for its simplicity. It’s still better than “Baby Driver.” That’s not a typo. At least the distracting music cues are karaoke covers?
Pitt’s performance is dialed somewhere between his doofus from “Burn After Reading” and Mr. from “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” He’s fine. He’s been funnier. He’s been cooler. He’s probably busy thinking about the allegations of domestic abuse leveled at him in court filings by Angelina Jolie, which we all just don’t talk about for some reason. Taylor-Johnson and Henry almost pop. Their odd couple vibe is a little too stiff, but it doesn’t feel like their fault. It reads like they were directed by the guy who directed “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” which they were.
That director, David Leitch, can’t quite wrangle the sprawling nonsense. To go where every other review has likely gone: It never goes off the rails but speeds down a well-worn track. The surprises are mild, the action is lukewarm, and the humor is chuckle-worthy. Apologies to Isaka, who knows far better, but maybe the whitewashed cast doesn’t offend as much as it feels redundant. We’ve seen this before, with these same general folks, with this same Americanized sensibility. Burn this to DVD and say it’s from 2003, and nobody would catch the lie.
Grade = C
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Amy Nicholson at the Wall Street Journal says “Mr. Leitch’s frantic distractions aren’t those of a magician building toward a grand moment of prestige. He’s simply a juggler trying to throw as many balls as possible in the air; his act is all momentum.”
Dana Han-Klein at the We’re Watching What?! Podcast says “It’s a loud star-studded ride that doesn’t trust it’s audience in the slightest. It feels like a failed rip off of Tarantino, Christie, and Ritchie all rolled into one. Even as lighter summer fare goes it doesn’t scratch any itches.”
Jennifer Heaton at Alternative Lens says “This is ‘Con Air,’ this is ‘Bad Boys,’ this is ‘Demolition Man.’ If that’s your kind of thing, know not to expect too much, and ideally don’t pay full price for it, you’ll probably have an enjoyable time.”