Director David Leitch is no stranger when it comes to engineering big blockbuster films within established film franchises. Making his skull-cracking debut with 2014’s “John Wick”, this architect of action cinema has shown himself to be a versatile virtuoso of ultra-violence. He understands the glorious satisfaction found in bloody melees and close-quarter combat with “Atomic Blonde”. He’s also got an eye for ambitious action setpieces in the spin-off film “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw”. While at the same time, he’s able to look at the lighter side with “Deadpool 2” and “Nobody”. Oh what we wouldn’t give to see his take on DC’s Suicide Squad. That would be absolutely insane to watch!
Now, he’s back with “Bullet Train”, a film with a very clear premise: one seasoned vet on a train full of assassins and killers looking to steal a brief case. The idea of a film’s setting being locked mostly on a singular moving location is a rather interesting proposition. We’ve seen it done masterfully in films like “Speed” and done poorly with Michael Bay’s most recent film “Ambulance”. So will “Bullet Train” be able to run its course without a hitch, or will it be derailed? Let’s find out!
The film’s plot is basically Leitch’s reinterpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express”, but this time with a lot of more swearing and fight scenes. It mainly follows Brad Pitt’s Ladybug, an assassin going through his Eat-Pray-Love phase of life as he commits himself to one final job. A job that will see him encounter a myriad of colourful characters. From two brother assassins to a desperate father to one very naughty, young lady with a plan. In spite of the film’s many moving parts, it all ultimately leads to a satisfying showdown between Ladybug and the deadly masterminds behind it all.
That being said, not every sub-plot in the film feels completely necessary making the runtime feel bloated. We understand that the convolutedness of the plot is part of the fun, though it comes at the expense of the film’s momentum grinding to a screeching halt. By the time the puzzle is finally pieced together, the audience is essentially checked out emotionally. So yes, the film won’t quite hit all the dramatic high notes you’re looking for. Your consolation? Screenplay writer Zak Olkewicz’s writing.
Make no mistake, “Bullet Train” is a comedy through and through. Whether it’s in the quippy, joke-a-minute banter between the characters or the physical slapstick present in the melees, you’re bound to have a good chuckle or two. We especially enjoyed the banter between the two brothers, Lemon and Tangerine. Everyone in the film is given a chance to show off their comedic chops, even the dignified Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji who play austeur Yakuza members get a few jokes in. Paired with the tangled yarn of quirky, off-kilter backstories and it makes for a fairly amusing romp. Though, one that was hoping that its semi-serious, semi-effacing message on the nature of causality would lend some thematic poignancy to its narrative.
Spoiler Alert: it does not.
Of all of Leitch’s films, “Bullet Train” has got be his second least memorable in terms of jaw-dropping action spectacle. “Hobbs and Shaw” has the privilege of taking that title. It’s not to say that there aren’t any well-coordinated moments of hand-to-hand combat, or creative uses of the physical environment. The train is as much a setting as it is a plot device and weapon for Ladybug and sordid company. But as we surmised earlier, it does limit the director’s ability to play around in a wider field. So to compensate for this limitation, we’re treated to a series of montages detailing the backstory of the various assassins on board. All taken right out of David Ayer’s playbook in “Suicide Squad” (the bad one).
Where the film does shine is in its use of Leitch’s of action choreography in setting prolonged comedic bits. There’s a level of coordination and controlled chaos that makes every battle a lilting dance that swings between high-octane, life-threatening encounters to moments of comedic levity. Coming into the film, think “Nobody”, not “Atomic Blonde” and you’ll leave a relatively happy camper. And before you ask, yes the film does have a katana duel. It’s an American action film set in Japan. What did you expect?
Brad Pitt’s zen-like Ladybug makes for a likeable protagonist to follow throughout the film’s Jenga Tower of a plot. With his empathetic nature and oafish charm, he embodies the everyman sensibilities of the audience perfectly. It certainly helps that Pitt did 95% of all the stuntwork in the film, what a trooper! Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson steal every scene they’re in as the bickering brothers, discussing everything from logistics to characters in “Thomas & Friends”. Joey King does an excellent job playing the deliciously wicked schoolgirl pulling the strings in the background. Just someone you love to hate. It seems like everyone on board had a blast playing their roles, with even a few hidden actors making fun cameos into the film.
Tonally, “Bullet Train” doesn’t quite stick a flawless landing as director David Leitch explained in an interview with Hype Malaysia that he was hoping that the film would strike a fine balance between comedy, thriller and drama. As an action-comedy film, it certainly achieves its objective. As an unfolding thriller, it’s fails to leave a mark. A great example of a black-comedy action thriller would be Martin McDonagh’s “In Bruges”. What made McDonagh’s film such a macabre masterpiece was his ability to discern the requirement for gravity and levity. An instinct in time, Leitch will hopefully master.
Overall, “Bullet Train” is the kind of film you want to watch on a Friday night after a long week. It’s got enough thrills and quips to keep you engaged throughout. While it doesn’t quite meet the high bar we’ve come to expect from Leitch, we applaud the director and cast’s readiness to give themselves, mind, body and soul, for the sake of LOLs. A bloody, fun romp that’ll get you where you to need to be. Side note, we wouldn’t mind seeing a spin-off film of Lemon and Tangerine before the events of “Bullet Train”. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson have killer chemistry!
Be sure to check out “Bullet Train” at your local theaters today!
"Bullet Train" Review
Overall, "Bullet Train" is the kind of film you want to watch on a Friday night after a long week. It's got enough thrills and quips to keep you engaged throughout. While it doesn't quite meet the high bar we've come to expect from Leitch, we applaud the director and cast's readiness to give themselves, mind, body and soul, for the sake of LOLs. A bloody, fun romp that'll get you where you to need to be.
- "Bullet Train" Review