David Leitch’s BULLET TRAIN has plenty going for it. It has a strong ensemble of actors playing colorful characters, like a quippy modernized Murder on the Orient Express, except in this one everybody’s trying to murder each other and/or escape, it’s not so much of a whodunit. It’s a fun idea, it looks good, the action scenes are really well executed, with the actors really putting in the work, as we’ve come to expect from 87North (formerly 87Eleven) productions.
But to me the movie is a disappointment. For the last year or two I knew it was the big 87North movie with the crazy-good cast headed up by Brad Pitt fighting each other on a train, and I just took it for granted it was gonna be top of the line. On the surface it is – it’s colorful, has a sense of style, and mostly avoids that everything-is-green-screen feeling of so many modern movies. It even has a good soundtrack of (until Rare Earth on the end credits) non-obvious songs, from Shuggie Otis to Pussy Riot to a really strong use of “Holding Out For a Hero.” Strong because it’s not the original Bonnie Tyler version from FOOTLOOSE, but a Japanese cover made by Miki Asakura in 1984 as the theme for a show called School Wars (now remixed with some MORTAL KOMBAT-y dance music flourishes).
But in the storytelling and wit departments it’s not as consistent. I guess I should’ve known from the jokey trailer that this was gonna be more like Leitch’s last film FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS HOBBS & SHAW (which has many fine qualities but annoyed me for tipping the FAST & FURIOUS formula too far away from melodrama and too much into shameless mugging, riffing and comical cameos) than his best solo work, ATOMIC BLONDE. I was taken off guard when most of the reviews I saw before release were very negative – it honestly hadn’t occurred to me it might not be great!
When I saw it compared to SMOKIN’ ACES, though, I thought that might not be bad news. My impression of that one comes from one of the most insane preview screenings I ever attended, where most of the audience openly revolted and alternated between openly mocking it and having conversations unrelated to the movie, like it was playing in the background at a party. I kind of liked it though, and the fact that it set those people off so strangely made it seem more punk rock.
BULLET TRAIN is not that chaotic. Its problem is that it’s all very cute and pleased with itself without being very funny. It feels more consistent and under control than SMOKIN’ ACES, but SMOKIN’ ACES made me laugh. It starts out seeming like Ben Affleck is one of the stars, but in the middle of a speech about his plan some ROAD WARRIOR-esque dudes pull up in an El Camino blasting Motorhead, fill him full of holes, and then sort of puppeteer his body to pretend he’s telling them he forgives them. That’s amazing. That deserves some sort of award, or at least a scholarship named after it. The Ben Affleck’s Dead Body Puppeteered in Smokin’ Ace Scholarship. BULLET TRAIN will not be contributing to young peoples’ educations in that way.
But one of its main jobs was to give Brad Pitt (“Rick,” Freddy’s Nightmares) a fun character to play, and at that it succeeds. He stars as a former assassin trying to live an enlightened, non-violent life, so his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, BIONIC SHOWDOWN: THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN AND THE BIONIC WOMAN) gives him a gig where all he has to do is get on the bullet train and steal a briefcase. Ideally. She gives him the code name “Ladybug” to counteract his belief that he has terrible luck.
What I like about Ladybug is that he’s kind of an amalgamation of some of Pitt’s most successful on screen personas. He’s quick-witted and highly competent, winning fights against various other elite assassins without traditional weapons, using skill and tenacity (and a little luck). But he’s also a bit of a buffoon, fucking up the job in various comical ways and whining like a total dork (“I don’t even know you, man!” when a guy he doesn’t recognize seeks bloody vengeance on him). And he’s also got some of that surfer/stoner/philosopher side to him, un-self-consciously using therapy buzzwords, showing unearned empathy to his enemies and trying to talk uninterested parties into peaceful solutions. And his glasses, dorky bucket hat and white shoes only emphasize his overwhelming handsomeness.
Ladybug easily steals the case out of storage even though it’s $10 million in ransom money, being transported by hitmen Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry, CHILD’S PLAY remake) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, SHANGHAI KNIGHTS). I guess they didn’t need to use it, because they’re also returning “The Son” (Logan Lerman, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) to his father “The White Death,” some mysterious mask-wearing gwilo who took over the Tokyo underworld Keyser Sozo-style, according to flashbacks. Lerman is pretty funny as some dipshit with long hair and face tattoos – I didn’t recognize him and assumed he was one of those inexplicably popular white rappers turned rockers making his acting debut.
The inevitable catch comes when Ladybug can’t get off the train because he runs into The Wolf (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Puerto Rican rapper/singer/wrestler Bad Bunny), another assassin who recognizes him as the guy he thinks ruined his life. I have no familiarity with Bad Bunny, but he’s very cool in this role, with a sort of cartel boss meets Elvis Presley look and a really well choreographed and performed fight between furious attacker and confused but not-entirely-overwhelmed victim. Unfortunately, The Wolf’s part is just that fight and a flashback explaining what he’s mad about, and the main beats of the fight were already worn out by the trailer.
There’s a bunch of complicated other shit going on on the train. In fact the movie opens with the seemingly unrelated introduction of Andrew Koji (SNAKE EYES) in a non-combatant role as “The Father,” some washed up dude whose son got pushed off a building (?) and his ex-Yakuza dad The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada, RINGU, THE LAST SAMURAI, SPEED RACER, ARMY OF THE DEAD) blames him for letting it happen. He’s on the train looking for the kid who did it, who turns out to be The Prince (Joey King, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ, THE PRINCESS), who lured him there on purpose as part of a convoluted master plan.
Also there’s a mysterious poisoner called The Hornet, and a venomous snake stolen from a zoo. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, THE HARDER THEY FALL) and Karen Fukuhara (Katana in SUICIDE SQUAD) show up briefly, but Pitt, Henry and Taylor-Johnson’s characters are the focus, which is fine because they’re all very good. Henry gets to do some of that heavy-lidded exasperation I love from him on Atlanta, despite transforming into an uptight Englishman. And Taylor-Johnson benefits from not having to do an American accent. I know he’s in his thirties now, but it’s still kind of striking to see the nerd from KICK-ASS now convincing as a macho mustache role that would’ve gone to Robert Carlyle some years back.
I think these actors and even their characters are funny, but the banter they’re given is too forced, a milder version of one of those ‘90s Tarantino-wannabes that seemed convinced they cracked the criminals-talking-about-silly-things formula but just came across as posers. One of the running gags is that Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and brings it up constantly. I eventually kind of liked that it’s his deeply held philosophy that everyone fits into personality types of characters from that show, but the way they just shove it in there before we’ve gotten a feel for this guy makes him seem like a one gimmick character. Another gag is that they didn’t choose their code names (I don’t want to be Mr. Pink!) and every time they introduce themselves someone will ask “Like the fruit?” Everyone says their lines with the rhythm of actual humor, but it just doesn’t feel like a natural response. “Like the fruit?” What else would Lemon and Tangerine be like? What are you talking about?
Similarly, there’s more than one instance of Lemon and Tangerine being referred to as twins and Ladybug saying he doesn’t think they’re twins. Get it? Because they cast them with actors who are different races. Is that really good enough to keep going back to, guys? I don’t think this is your best work.
If there’s a thematic concern that works, it’s Ladybug’s fixation on luck vs. Lemon’s on fate. Yes, all kinds of unlikely bad shit befalls Ladybug, but he also has lots of incredibly good luck (case in point: he gets bit by a poisonous snake when he’s already been injected with anti-venom during a fight). There’s a really good bit in the mid-credits that puts another point in the fate column, but like the best part of the movie* it kinda feels like too little too late – evidence that they put lots of thought and detail into how it all comes together, but also standing out as the rare scenes where they reach the target of how clever and fun they’re aiming for.
The movie kind of kicks into gear toward the end when Sanada shows up and gets to use the sword hidden in his duck-handled cane (I like when it chops the top of a seat clean off), which is weird since his whole story is only tangentially connected to the main characters. But those guys get to be caught in the crossfire of the battle, which coincides with the inevitable FX-driven high speed train disaster movie type shit.
I forgot about this but while the other JOHN WICK director, Chad Stahelski, was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double, Leitch was Pitt’s. He doubled him on FIGHT CLUB, THE MEXICAN, SPY GAME, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TROY and MR. & MRS. SMITH. For this one Pitt is doubled by Kyle Mclean (recent Statham double), though allegedly did 95% of his stunts.
The fight coordinator is Kirk A. Jenkins and second unit director/stunt coordinator is Greg Rementer – both did the same for NOBODY. Of course a production company started by stuntmen who revolutionized modern fight training and pre-viz techniques is gonna excel at action scenes, but 87North has also held surprisingly high standards for other elements of filmmaking craft. Here once again they benefit from the talents of cinematographer Jonathan Sela (BRADLEY COOPER IS THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN), editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (SHANG-CHI), and production designer David Scheunemann (GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE), all of whom also worked on JOHN WICK and/or ATOMIC BLONDE.
Maybe this is my own failure, but for most of the running time I sort of took it for granted that I understood what I needed to understand, and then after all was revealed I started thinking “Wait a minute – what?” Like, The Wolf wants to kill Ladybug for what happened at his wedding, and we do see a glimpse of what appears to be Ladybug serving wine. Eventually we learn that The Hornet poisoned the wine, and The Wolf thought he did it (in fact he just spilled The Wolf’s glass, saving his life). So he really was just at the wedding as a caterer? Or he was gonna kill him but somebody beat him to it and killed everybody? I must’ve missed something there.
The script is by Zak Olkewicz (FEAR STREET: PART TWO -1978), based on the 2010 Japanese novel MariaBeetle by Kōtarō Isaka. Judging from the Wikipedia summary it sounds like the movie is very close to the book (down to the Thomas & Friends references!) except that it sounds like The Prince (male in the book) is doing all this just to fuck with people, not as a scheme against The White Death, who if he’s in the book is not important enough to be mentioned in the summary. That also leads me to believe that the further element of Sanada’s character coming to avenge The White Death is not from the book. To me the book sounds like more of a PULP FICTION approach, a set of criminal characters with their own stories going on that overlap a little by coincidence, but aren’t some big puzzle to wrap your head around. That kind of sounds better to me. On the other hand, the part of the movie where the pieces started coming together was the part I was most invested in. So what do I know?
BULLET TRAIN isn’t terrible, and I wouldn’t discourage people from seeing it. It’s just too bad it didn’t come together stronger. It’s always a bummer when you see a trailer a million times and assume you’re gonna like the movie and then when you finally see it you feel like the trailer summed it up a little too well – previewing all the best jokes, telling you who was gonna fight who and how, etc.
I don’t know the different trains from Thomas & Friends, but I guess I’m familiar enough with the two JOHN WICK co-directors to distinguish the types they represent. I prefer the serious-absurd-thoughtful Stahelski movie approache to the smartass-flashy-hollow Leitch one. But maybe we need them both out there raising the action bar in different types of movies. I’ll keep watching.
*SPOILER FOR THE BEST PART OF THE MOVIE. Bottled water is featured in many scenes – held, sipped on, thrown at people, drugged and accidentally consumed by the wrong person. The final time one of these things happens there is suddenly a flashback to depict the entire journey of the bottle throughout the movie, following right behind it like its Carter in CARTER, including for multiple shots where it’s dropped and rolls across the floor. I wish the whole movie was as good as that goofy little scene.