The dizzying and violent “Bullet Train” is set in Japan on a bullet train that turns into a theater of death. It’s watchable – it stars Brad Pitt – prankish, occasionally funny and, predictably, silly. Hollywood has long churned out silly, brutal stories, one difference being that today filmmakers no longer need to rationalize carnage with moralizing or chatter about heroic codes. The special effects are better now too, of course – the splatters look really good.
The story is incidental; the ambiance, Looney Tunes Tarantino-esque. Mostly it’s about bad guys fighting, killing and fighting some more as a cowardly Pitt moves from car to car punching, joking, mugging, scheming and sprinting. Her character, an assassin in a crisis of faith, has Ladybug’s cutesy handle and is an underworld mercenary who takes orders from a talker (Sandra Bullock) who largely remains off-screen. For his new mission, he must steal a briefcase, a job he takes on with anxiety issues, some serious skills, and a white hat he quickly abandons, dropping a perfect headboard and plenty of violence.
Loosely adapted from “Maria Beetle,” a page-turner by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka, the film was directed by David Leitch and written by Zak Olkewicz. As one would expect from an expensive studio item, there were changes in the transition to the screen, including the commercially strategic line-up of the main characters. Most are now Westerners, including Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny, who appears as a caricature of the cartel, and Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who stick around longer as team-up British assassins. Joey King, Hiroyuki Sanada, Andrew Koji, Zazie Beetz, Michael Shannon and an underused Karen Fukuhara are also on board.
The likeable cast is one of the film’s attractions, as is its stunt choreography. Leitch is a former stuntman (he worked as a stuntman for Pitt) and his background runs throughout “Bullet Train”, which takes place largely within the narrow confines of the train as it runs from Tokyo in Kyoto. Leitch does a good job in these tightly circumscribed spaces and one of the wittiest fights finds Ladybug and Henry’s character grappling face to face around a table, their bodies eventually intertwining as they struggle and twist. (They’re drowned out by an old sexist cliche that sounds like Garth from “Wayne’s World.”)
Part of the reason Leitch doesn’t always work the tight quarters of the train – each car a separate film set – as imaginatively as he should is because he’s too busy juggling the many choppy parts of the story, including an overabundance of flashbacks. Again and again, the film departs from the main action to fill in one of the character backgrounds, which are never as engaging as Pitt et al. daffily run crazy. These flashbacks add negligible texture and even less interest. Worse, because he repeatedly returns to the past, Leitch never manages to build sustained narrative momentum inside the train, which badly flattens the film as a whole.
“Bullet Train” has no clue, beyond the geometric problems presented by all of its bodies jostling in small spaces, which means there’s not much to think about other than Pitt’s beauty and the way violence lands. Admittedly, a lot of the creative energy here has gone into finding different ways for guys to die — and it’s an almost all-male death marathon — or kill each other. Some die by the sword, some are poisoned (signify bleeding eyes), while others fly from this deadly coil via explosions or blows that send them spiraling. One man has his throat slit with a knife while another was shot in the neck. This poor soul tries in vain to quench the bloody geyser which springs up like water from a fountain.
You’re not supposed to care about that. Most of the characters are disposable, interchangeable minions who dash around before they’re inevitably exterminated by someone else with bigger guns and brains. As you’d expect from the title, many of these underlings are downed with handguns and long guns of varying sizes. The characters are riddled, shredded, annihilated; a guy loses half his face – bang-bang, ha-ha.
“Bullet Train” has its moments, a few laughs, a few smooth moves, but Leitch did better elsewhere, including in the original “John Wick,” which he directed (uncredited) with Chad Stahelski. A revenge tale, “John Wick” has an equally high body count, but is better structured, more modulated, and has a brittle veneer of spirit height. The hero of “John Wick” is on a mission; Ladybug is at work. In other words, “John Wick”, in classic American (cinematic) fashion, presents a moral justification for his slaughter. “Bullet Train” doesn’t even bother to serve up such self-elevating, audience-flattering fantasies – its bloodlust is honest.
Rated R for extreme violence. Duration: 2 hours 6 minutes. In theaters.