Given the movie’s name, you’d be forgiven for going into Bullet Train expecting something fast-paced and straightforward, a non-stop action film. The movie’s premise certainly invites that expectation, the story of colorful contract killers brought together on the high-speed Japanese train. But in the hands of director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde), Bullet Train is a series of starts, stops, and directions, all in the service of obvious jokes and celebrity cameos.
Written by Zak Olkewicz, adapting the novel by Kōtarō Isaka, Bullet Train stars Brad Pitt as Ladybug, a criminal who arrives on the train to do a simple snatch and grab job. On his recovery from a bad job, Ladybug quotes bromides from his time in therapy, often while chatting on the phone with his longsuffering handler Maria (Sandra Bullock). On the train, Ladybug encounters twin English assassins Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), murderous moppet the Prince (Joey King), and eventually vengeful cartel killer the Wolf (Bad Bunny, billed as Benito A. Martinez Ocasio). Although they all have different goals on the train, each of the baddies end up fighting over a silver briefcase belonging to a Russian Yakuza leader dubbed the White Death.
That might sound confusing, but Leitch takes pains to clarify the characters’ motivations and relationships. I don’t mean that as a compliment. Leitch’s favorite storytelling techniques are cutaways and flashbacks, even when further explanation isn’t needed. For example, When Ladybug encounters the Wolf, we’re treated to a five-minute sequence showing the killer’s back story, including snap zooms onto his wolf bolo and shots of him howling, in case you didn’t catch the fact that he’s called the Wolf. Another cutaway shows Tangerine and Lemon on a killing spree, set to Engelbart Humperdinck’s “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” a joke Leitch finds so funny that he returns to the tune two more times, once as a punk cover and again as mournful dirge.
The movie lands a few mildly amusing jokes, mostly because of the likable cast. Leitch shows himself to be disinterested in constructing a proper gag, choosing instead to resort to celebrity cameos and broad cultural stereotypes (did you know that Japanese kids like anime! Crazy, huh?). One of the most persistent gags involves Lemon’s incessant tendency to explain human behavior via Thomas the Tank Engine. If that sounds hilarious to you, then you may be the right audience for Bullet Train.
The bad jokes may be forgiven, as Leitch is a former stunt man, not a comedian, who worked on the first John Wick. But the action sequences are as poorly constructed and hyperactive as the rest of the film. Rarely do we see the combatants in wide or medium shots, preferring instead closeups, cuts, and insert shots, the standard Hollywood fare to make untrained movie stars look like trained killers. In the place of coherent action, Leitch lets ironic needle drops and frenetic editing to give the illusion of motion. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela manages to craft some striking images, taking advantage of the rich lighting and colors to elevate the proceedings.
Sadly, even with the strong imagery, it’s hard to justify watching Bullet Train in the theater. Leitch shows no interest in the characters or the plot, blithely It plays more like a Netflix movie, best when put on in the background and glanced at while you do your laundry.