The Plot: Assassin Ladybird (Brad Pitt) is in the habit of bringing about bad luck wherever he goes. Corpses up end up in his vicinity and he attracts the wrong kind of attention. On a high-speed bullet train from Tokyo for his next mission, he runs into some familiar faces including ‘brothers’ Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Also onboard are Kimura (Andrew Koji), the vengeful son of The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is targeted by The Prince (Joey King). They all have something in common apart from being on this train. As they trade blows and dodge bullets, they work out who is pulling the strings…
The Verdict: Subtlety is not a word that springs to mind when it comes to the films of David Leitch. The producer and uncredited co-director of John Wick followed shortly after by Atomic Blonde is not one for the slow-build and sudden explosion of violence. It is instead built into the DNA of his films, ready to erupt at any given moment in a flurry of blood and flying body parts. Short, sharp shocks of gory violence along with lots of wisecracking one-liners, character turns and a breakneck pace are what an audience can expect from his films. Bullet Train is no different, moving like a magic bullet smashing its way through various bodies and leaving a trail of destruction before reaching the end of the line. Is it a ride worth taking though? Despite some occasional wobbles as this bullet-laden bullet train chugs along, the answer is an on-target yes.
Based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train puts several bad eggs in one moving tin can, bounces them off each other, shakes rather than stirs them and observes which one will break first. If it was meant to be a character study of a man with bad luck trailing behind him like a shadow, then that doesn’t quite come across so clearly in Zak Olkewicz’s wildly-written script. It’s only a minor quirk in Ladybird’s character as he fights to keep stayin’ alive when seemingly everyone comes after him. Leitch even unsubtly states as much in the opening credits, but the bigger plot point is how these assassins managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The answer to that comes in the third act, which builds to a suitably destructive climax that throws everything including the kitchen sink at the plot in a ballsy go-for-broke move. Runaway Train? Check. Snakes On A Plane (or train)? Check. Not to mention all the frequently funny references to a much-loved children’s TV show. It’s a small miracle that Leitch manages to orchestrate all this madness into some semblance of order.
But that he does and not without some visual flair. The fight sequences within the confines of the train carriages have a messy, bone-crunching detail to them wherein fight improvisation is the key – an everyday bottle of water becomes an important prop here along with a missing briefcase that everyone wants. This is contrasted with the more traditional Japanese elements involving katanas, yakuzas and the preservation of family honour. The film sits more comfortably in the American / international section of the train though, making it much like the Scarlett Johansson remake of Ghost In The Shell – a film set in Japan but which doesn’t particularly come across as reflecting the rich culture of its host country. There is a layer of unreality running through the film along with this – none of the other passengers notice the fights, the train is barely staffed and conveniently has no security presence onboard. The stakes are only high for the key characters, not the collateral damage (of which there is plenty).
While Bullet Train does have an air of predictable Hollywood artificiality about it, it also rattles along at a cracking pace. It delivers the required amounts of thrills, spills and kills to satiate a late-summer audience looking for popcorn entertainment. Keeping very much in tone with the likes of John Wick but lacking some of its sophisticated world-building and intricate plotting, Leitch has once again proven himself to be the master of action madcap mayhem. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Bullet Train (Japan / USA / 16 / 126 mins)
In short: Madcap mayhem
Directed by David Leitch.
Starring Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada.