Here’s a wacky alchemist recipe for you. If Agatha Christie were alive right now, had gotten her hands on the script for Speed, and then remodeled it to mirror early-era Guy Ritchie, middle-era Jackie Chan, or any manner of stock Hong Kong action script, one may understand what director David Leitch was thinking of when building Bullet Train. The next to continue a healthy lineage of transport-based blockbuster, one with ties to a Kōtarō Isaka page-turner, it’s an admirable take on the empty-calorie summer romp, riding or dying on its share of charisma. And were it not for Brad Pitt overselling his performance, ashamedly toying with his inner Reeves or Reynolds, we’d have leapt off the track well before the first important stop. Without him serving as a liberal coating of superglue, barely holding a myriad of almost-complete ideas together, there stands a line of cars without a tether, or a reason to slow down.
The typical Japanese commuter train can often run at speeds of over two hundred mph. Leitch, working around the heightened beats of Zak Olkewicz’s (Fear Street: Part Two – 1978) script, commit to going full throttle. Max Gs, with the doors shut, and a penance to crash and burn. Only Ladybug (Pitt) can calm that octane-rampant intuition, mellow in his bucket hat, trench coat and horn-rimmed glasses. He hops on a Shinkansen headed for Morioka, one of six secretive assassins onboard, with the simplest task imaginable, per his handler Maria (the disembodied voice of Sandra Bullock). Get on, retrieve a briefcase loaded with unmarked currency, get off at the next stop. He’s been out of the game a while, wanting a fresh start after a string of gigs plaguing him with the worst possible luck.
Still, he musters enough courage to perform this job, hopeful not to encounter anyone he knows. Regrettably, the exact opposite happens, reconnecting with several strangers once considered marks in his line. Ranking at the top and playing most prevalent to Ladybug’s frustrations, detectives Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Not unlike Poirot in their very British composure, this pair appeal most akin to a graphic novel motif, citing lessons learned from Thomas the Tank Engine while flaunting the moral implications of their growing hit list. Henry sticks his neck out repeatedly, profuse with sage wisdom and an excess of optimism to irk Taylor-Johnson’s finely costumed, coiffed, and mustachioed straight man role. The pair claim to be twins, but they couldn’t be further apart in personality.
Elsewhere on the train we find The Prince (a ferocious Joey King, not too far away from her damsel-in-distress character of earlier this summer) hiding away in the back as a La Femme Nikita type with a millennial attitude and the mindset of Vector. Her performance is starved for a stronger punchline, while Kimura (Andrew Koji) holds a figurative knife to her throat searching for answers on who killed his father. Trapped in similar, toneless territory is The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny, providing one of many scattered cameos), a family first guy holding vendettas close to his chest. Criminal prodigy The Son (Logan Lerman) and mistress of disguise The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) fare a little better on-screen time, though not as much on depth. And all of them face competition in some form, either answering to or fearing the presence of an overarching crime boss known generically as The White Death (an underutilized Michael Shannon).
Could it be there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen? Not if one weren’t looking at this like a Christie novel, where the detective could consider all in the room a suspect until they’re brutally picked off. Otherwise, yes. They could have been pared down, along with Olkewicz’s manuscript, cherry-picking from Isaka’s novel like it were copied verbatim. Leitch is working from no clear tether, but without no loss of drive. I’d call it a pivot back to his Atomic Blonde phase, versus his scattershot franchise phase (Deadpool 2, Hobbs and Shaw). Not required to adhere to an established IP, Leitch can go unhinged. And he does, for 20 minutes too long. To the point where whatever mood he’s locking down turns a smidge lemony sour.
The adventure does not come off rotten, though its sense of pacing eventually finds its place in the world listless, wondering where to go. Bullet Train might be satisfied enough to remain stationary save for character introductions, traveling primarily in a straight line while expert acts of fight choreography break out, par for Leitch’s course. Though that does not help these actors too much. Even Henry could stand to ask for a more captive arc.
Pitt’s character looks tired at times, making it evident how little excitement he has for the assassin game, seeing the gig more like a cautious observer. Months of self-reflection in a monastery could make anyone reassess their point of view. At the very least, Pitt manages the character with both dad like calm, and a self-aware cringe. He wants minimal blood spilled; a given audience will desire less needless injury. Or would it be more? With the crowd I was sitting in, the reactions only dulled that distinction.
What wasn’t dull was that visual panache, even when Leitch incites a whiplash of flashbacks and context clues, covering every character’s specific parallel, and venturing from one locale to another. Moving through varied elements of scenery at a blistering pace for a lengthy spot does grow taxing. By the end, a light mental strain should be all but expected. It still justifies Leitch’s strengths as a director, stuffing in a kitchen sink of ideas. Made to look or sound pretty at the mercy of musician Dominic Lewis (The King’s Man) and editor Elísabet Ronalsdóttir (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings), the carnival-like whirlwind does turn dizzying before long.
Leitch’s flair for acrobatic eye candy once more reigns over his festering genius. Even with having skipped his Fast and Furious spinoff work (I anticipate it’s a turkey), his ability to stage visual splendor of the shut-your-brain-off-at-the-door variety is still firm. I couldn’t blame him for Bullet Train eventually losing its way, belaboring whatever statement it was hoping to make on the assassin’s guilt. Its welcome is more than surpassed, patience running thin, though not the entertainment value. The latter may only be achieved solely on Pitt’s noncommittal smarm, nudging him along until the venture buckles. And even then, when all cognition or logic flies out a broken window, it’s still a fun enough ride that will be tough to look or walk away from. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Bullet Train opens August 5, earlier in some locations; rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality; 126 minutes.