Bullet Train review: All aboard the crazy train
Snakes on a plane, assassins on a train: Some concepts are so blood simple, they can sell themselves in a sentence fragment. Who needs verbs when you have katanas, Bad Bunny, and Brad Pitt smirking in a bucket hat? (There is, in fact, a snake somewhere on board this Bullet Train, though its venom-tipped slithering must compete with a thousand other ways to die.)
The movie, in theaters August 5, largely delivers on the high-speed berserkery of its premise — a manic neon candygram stuffed with cameos and smash-cut chaos, hurtling breathlessly toward its gonzo end. Bullet begins without preamble by throwing a small child off a roof and spends the next two hours stacking up its snazzily soundtracked body count from there, like an Agatha Christie mystery art-directed by Guy Ritchie. It's actually helmed by David Leitch, who made the original John Wick and 2017's underrated Atomic Blonde, and his work undoubtedly owes a debt to Ritchie and many other directors working in the splattery comedic action milieu that has dominated the last two decades. But it also feels looser and more inclusive than many films in the genre, tipping as much toward the lush eye-popping absurdity of Everything Everywhere All at Once as it does the crasser testosterone antics of Kingsmen, The Gentlemen et al. Death — by gun, by sword, by pink animé plushy — is a given; the jokes, and the wasabi peas, are free.
The movie stars, though, do not come cheap: Pitt gets probably the most screen time as an affable American hitman code-named Ladybug by his unflappable handler, played by Sandra Bullock (who largely appears as a disembodied voice on his phone). Ladybug has been working on himself, and hopes one day to be a better man; in the meantime he has a lot of self-help koans of the every-wall-is-a-window variety to share, and a problem: The silver briefcase he's been dispatched to collect from a sleek commuter train headed to Kyoto is just… sitting there, unguarded, in a luggage rack. Can it really be that easy?
Dear reader, it cannot. There are many would-be contenders scattered throughout the train, including Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of Cockney wet-work specialists tasked with chaperoning both the case and the delinquent son (that's Logan Lerman beneath the sullen glare and scribbly cheekbone tattoos) of a crime boss auspiciously named The White Death (Michael Shannon). There's also a pouty sweater-vested schoolgirl (Joey King) who is not what she seems, a homicidal groom bent on revenge (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. reggaeton god Bad Bunny), a father and son (Andrew Koji and the great, elegant Hiroyuki Sanada) with their own score to settle, and a German assassin with a flair for fatal intoxicants (Zazie Beetz).
These characters are helpfully identified by flashing supertitles splashed across the screen, though many of them hardly live long enough to enjoy their fancy signage. There are exceptions: Lemon and Tangerine, who bicker and banter like siblings (they're actually twins, or at least blood brothers), and King's scheming fille fatale are largely centered alongside Pitt, whose Ladybug often feels like a 30-years-later update on his stoned couch-lord Floyd in the cult Quentin Taraninto-penned classic True Romance. He just wants you to sit in your feelings, man, and maybe help him understand the functions on this tricked-out Japanese train toilet.
But Ladybug is obliged, like the rest of them, to kill or be killed, lest The White Death express his increasing displeasure by getting there first. (Rarely has Shannon's Beethoven hair and shark-eyed stare felt so ideally tailored to a role). And so Leitch embarks on a series of adrenalized set pieces that defy logic and physics so breezily that its relentless, ridiculous violence plays almost like a winsome ballet. At 126 minutes, Bullet Train is maybe 20 minutes too long; the movie seems to be having too much fun to reach its final station on time, and too many winky drop-ins from A-list action heroes to wedge in. (While some commentators have understandably voiced their objections to the whitewashing of Kōtarō Isaka's original 2010 novel with predominately non-Asian actors, the author himself seems to have embraced it.) Bullet Train doesn't have a destination, really, or a moral imperative other than mayhem. But it's got a ticket to ride. Grade: B+