With films like Bong Joon Hos Snowpiercer and The Commuter, directed by Liam Neeson, greasing the wheels, movies about trains have moved forward since the original Murder on the Orient Express. Adapted from Ktar Isakas’ pulpy novel MariaBeetle, Bullet Train further amps up the carnage and shifts the action to Japan.
However, the location here is mostly just a neon-lit stage for a high-speed scrimmage with an international ensemble, including Brian Tyree Henry (best of the bunch) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as British twins who bicker; Andrew Koji as a Japanese assassin; a Mexican cartel veteran named the Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny); a dangerous young woman called Prince who pretends to cry to get out of almost everything (Joey King); and the Zazie Beetz killer known as the Hornet.
All are on the train for various criminal reasons ultimately linked to a Russian kingpin named the White Death. The actor playing this most fearsome character is best left to the third act reveal, but that’s just one way Bullet Train plays with the featured character. There’s a cameo that answers Pitts in The Lost City. Another Lost City star, Sandra Bullock, is mostly only heard from on the other end of a phone line, as Ladybugs’ handler.
The copious flashbacks and quirky banter (Henry’s character has a Thomas the Tank Engine-based vision) that accompany all of these characters’ juggling between gory encounters is a familiar type of setting reminiscent of a long line of Quentin Tarantino knockoffs. In Bullet Train, a film that proudly opts for style over substance, characters are presented as video game fighters, running gags get smashed, and winking irreverence lands somewhere between playful and exhausting.
It’s not a train wreck. Leitch’s film is colorful, cartoonish, and well-choreographed, but Bullet Train’s more manic energy eventually wanes, since that’s all the movie ever worked. Well, that and Pitt. Its charm alone does wonders for the film, elevating it to at least watchable. When, in the finale, Ladybug comically navigates unscathed through the wreckage, it captures exactly the situation. Bullet Train might go off the rails but Pitt remains bulletproof.
Bullet Train, a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for its strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. Duration: 126 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.
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