Stylized action and banter.
That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.
BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!
BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.
Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.
But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.
As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.
BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.
Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.
Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.
Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.
The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.
This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.
Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.
The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.
Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.
BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.
At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.
BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.
A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.
But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.
BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.
Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.