Dir: David Leitch. Starring: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martínez Ocasio, Sandra Bullock. 15, 126 minutes.
Brad Pitt has spent decades trying to tell us that, underneath all that leading man sheen, he’s really just a goofball. Think his wonderfully bumbleheaded turns in Burn After Reading, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, and, hell, even this year’s The Lost City. I’m not sure how much audiences have been convinced of this, though. The grandeur of movie stardom can be a hard thing to shake off. And it might be why Bullet Train, a gonzo action flick from the guy who made Deadpool 2, feels so slicked with desperation.
Pitt’s funny here – there’s a precise comic timing to the way he shoves a venomous snake down a toilet bowl – but Bullet Train feels so try-hard in its quirky theatrics that it’s a little like watching a kid repeatedly calling for their mother’s attention before they cartwheel into a brick wall. It’s Tarantino-esque at a time when that descriptor is so overused it can only be derogatory. Have we not found something else that white guy directors desperate for a visual style can shamelessly rip off? In fact, that kind of derivativeness feels especially odd to see from a director like David Leitch – John Wick, which he co-directed with Chad Stahelski, seems to be perpetually spawning copycats these days. Leitch has already made his mark on the pop culture landscape. Could he not have simply borrowed from himself?
The fact Bullet Train is an adaptation – of Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle – seems to have had little effect. The film’s cast is rammed with Western actors, while Japanese and Japanese-American stars like Karen Fukuhara and Masi Oka are handed mere scraps of dialogue. Instead, the film indulges in a kind of cutesy Orientalism. Hitman Ladybug (Pitt), whose code name was decided by his handler (Sandra Bullock, in a largely offscreen role) since he’s convinced he’s unlucky, is coaxed back into work with what should be a simple job: pick up a briefcase stored on the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Kyoto and walk away.
He spends much of his screentime befuddled by Japanese culture – unable to use a smart toilet, rolling his eyes at the train’s costumed mascot, arguing that the public aren’t as “polite” in Japan as he expected. At certain points, Japanese-language covers of the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” play. It’s action cinema as a tourism brochure. Ladybug soon discovers that the train is packed with other deadly assassins, all with their eyes on that mysterious briefcase, and all of them rendered as one-note caricatures. Two Cockney geezers – Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s genuinely manic here in a way that outclasses his co-stars) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) – bicker about their codenames. “When’s the last time you ate a lemon meringue pie?” one of them argues, which is odd considering lemon meringue pie is an entirely normal dessert option. Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, and has built his entire moral code around it – something that actually originates from Isaka’s novel, but is here rendered largely irritating.
They’re travelling with the son (Logan Lerman) of an infamous Russian mobster, known as White Death (Michael Shannon). Two other assassins, Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio, aka rapper Bad Bunny) and Hornet (Zazie Beetz) are hot on their heels. A teenage girl (Joey King), with another shaky British accent, has a hidden motive. Meanwhile, a Japanese assassin, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), has come onboard to find the person who pushed his infant son off a roof at the beckoning of his own father, known only as the Elder (veteran action star Hiroyuki Sanada). The latter pair, being the only human characters, are by far the coolest additions to a film where everyone is making such an effort to be cool.
Zak Olkewicz’s screenplay aims for intricate chaos. But this is exactly the kind of hyper-pop film that, when it doesn’t work, comes off as exceedingly smug. It’s too wrapped up in the supposed cleverness of Lemon and Tangerine counting the number of people they’ve killed using an Engelbert Humperdinck-soundtracked montage. Or the way Ladybug frets that he’s mansplaining to a woman as she’s bleeding to death. Or the padding out of excessive backstories for characters who are immediately whacked.
There are certainly glimmers of the Leitch who made John Wick here. There’s a fight in the train’s quiet car that’s quite clever, in which a whispered argument turns into the padded thuds of heads being wacked into tables. But it never feels like the film takes advantage of its confined settings, since everything eventually melts into a CGI blur. And Pitt? He’s doing exactly what Pitt’s always done in these situations – doling out stoner philosophies like “let this be a lesson on the toxicity of anger” or “hurt people hurt people”. But you’ve seen this before. And you’ve already seen it better.
‘Bullet Train’ is in cinemas now