'Bullet Train': A Fun, Action-Packed Thrill Ride That Has Some Bumps Along the Way
From the opening moments of David Leitch's latest film, Bullet Train, it is clear that there is a huge convergence of styles, influences, and tones blending together. Following a rather serious prologue that establishes the Guy Ritchie-esque style of the film, we are introduced to Brad Pitt's character, Ladybug, an assassin who has grown weary of his line of work. His entrance is highly reminiscent of John Travolta's in Saturday Night Fever, as he walks down the streets of Tokyo to the beat of a Japanese cover of Staying Alive. As he is given the instructions for his mission, which consists of him retrieving an important briefcase, he boards a bullet train heading for Kyoto, which unbeknownst to him, is full of other deadly assassins who also want the briefcase. It's as if the film put Kill Bill, Smokin' Aces, and Snatch, with a small dash of Snowpiercer into a blender and this is the final product. It would be safe to say the film is a bit derivative of these films, but it doesn't feel like a complete rip-off of them either. The film takes some cues from them, and while it doesn't yield anything revolutionary, it is a rather entertaining blockbuster, and makes for a fun, albeit bloody, ride.
One thing that I tend to notice about David Leitch as a director is that he tends to struggle with pacing. His films tend to feel longer than they actually are, which is kind of baffling given that he has exclusively made action films. But somehow, he manages to stretch out most of the non-action parts of his films to where they bring the momentum down significantly. This is also true of Bullet Train, which drags way more often than a film like this should. Given that the film takes place over the course of one night, and mostly takes place on the Shinkansen, a high-speed train, it would make sense for the film to move at a brisk pace. To be fair, it does pick up during most of the sequences on the train, but there are moments of exposition that slow it down. The first act especially moves slow, as there is a lot that it sets up, and several characters that it introduces. It really struggles to find its footing during this time, but it does get there once the conflict sets in. These issues come up again near the film's end, as it goes on a bit longer than it should. It's as if the film has multiple endings, and it gets a bit irritating after a bit. The film could have cut a good 20 to 25 minutes and it would have flowed a bit more smoothly, but at least the rest of the film is exciting enough to make up for this.
While Leitch may struggle with the expository elements of the film, he does succeed in crafting some great action sequences. Since the action mostly takes place on a train, it is much more grounded, and rather visceral due to the close-quarters feeling it evokes. These fight scenes are choreographed rather well, and the quick editing and camerawork used during them is quite effective. It also helps that the film has a rather engaging visual style, with the specific design choices for each train car standing out especially. Furthermore, the use of neon, color, and a fictional Anime character that shows up repeatedly throughout the film allows it to feel like more of its own thing. But when the film takes us off the train, it doesn't have the same charm, and frankly looks kind of ugly in places. The third act is the worst offender of this, as it looks rather artificial, and took me out of the film. It's highly disappointing given how great other sequences look, but it's not the worst thing ever either.
The film's saving grace is its cast, led by Brad Pitt, who clearly had a ball making this. Whenever Brad Pitt gets to flex his comedic muscles, it's always a good time, and this role allows him to do just that. He has this strange energy throughout the film that works perfectly for it, as he gets the chance to be an action hero, while also playing the reluctance of the character so well. His character, Ladybug, wants to get the job done and move on, but seeing how he reacts to the obstacles in his way is quite funny. Pitt plays him with a sense of ennui and a desire for a more calm, stable life, which contrasts nicely with the violence that surrounds him throughout the film. This film further proves that Brad Pitt is one of our last great movie stars, as he is just so magnetic when he's on screen. It's not his best work, sure, but he still turns in a good performance.
As for the rest of the cast, just about everyone is doing solid work. Joey King once again shows us that she has the potential to be a big action star, and while her character is a bit basic, she has a certain quality to her performance that elevates it ever so slightly. Perhaps the best performances of the whole movie come from Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as two brothers and assassins named Lemon and Tangerine, respectively. The two are an unlikely duo, and have such a great dynamic together. Brian Tyree Henry is especially great, and has a running gag involving Thomas the Tank Engine that is a highlight of the whole film. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was a huge surprise for me, as I feel like I haven't seen him in a role this size in a while. He leans more into being an intimidating figure, and it works much better than I expected. It helps that the film is a bit heightened, and it allows Taylor-Johnson to go bigger without feeling like he's hamming it up too much. I was also impressed by Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays a small, yet integral role in the film, and makes the most of it. His character gets sidelined a little, but when he does show up, he is quite good.
Bullet Train is a perfect example of a film that I just can't be mad at. It's not the smartest or the most original film ever made, but I would be lying if I said I didn't have a fun time watching it. It's a fun, highly entertaining action movie, and even if it is a tad derivative, it is still better than a lot of other blockbusters from the past few years. If it would have trimmed some of the fat, and picked up the pace in certain moments, I would have liked it much more, but I still liked it more than I was expecting to. Not all of it works, but it is still a rather enjoyable film, and one that I can't help but like.