David Leitch is one of those handful of directors to be continually blessed with big Hollywood budgets to realize his ambitious action-movie dreams. A former stunt man who knows how to stage a fight so that it’s more interesting than exciting, he personifies the kind of cinematic mindset that feels all the technical tools at his disposal must be exploited effectively in order to realize a sustained entertainment vision, which goes without saying. In his case, this vision is the depiction of brutality that no one could ever take seriously, but at least in Deadpool2 he was working with a parody of the overblown superhero franchise that has dominated Hollywood for two decades. Bullet Train, loosely based on a novel by Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka, seems to have no subtext whatsoever. It is what it is—a garish, ultra-violent, impossibly convoluted exercise in snarky attitude and criminal preposterousness.
If the movie succeeds, at least half the credit should go to Brad Pitt, who seems fully invested in the stupid story mainly because it fits into his wheelhouse so perfectly. Pitt plays Ladybug, a hired assassin who, following a long layoff due to a traumatic injury and months of therapy, decides to become a different kind of hit man, one with a zest for life and a more forgiving philosophy. Obviously, his handler, Maria (Sandra Bullock, in a performance that is literally phoned in), doesn’t see this as being helpful, but she gives him a fairly easy assignment on his first day back: Retrieve a briefcase that is being transported on the titular high-speed express from Tokyo to Kyoto. “I don’t need the gun,” Ladybug says when he picks up his assignment package. “Take the gun,” says Maria.
And, of course, he needs the gun. The briefcase is apparently filled with lots of money that two other assassins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry) were supposed to deliver in a ransom deal but are keeping for themselves. There are a number of other shady but colorful types on the train eager to not only secure the briefcase, but dispose of Ladybug, since each one seems to have something against him. These various agenda do a deal on Ladybug’s head that Pitt conveys with his patented confused dude sensibility, constantly asking his opponents as they attempt to shoot, stab, or beat him, “What’s your problem?”
If the eventual multiple reveals fail to engage the viewer’s imagination it’s because real life in any recognizable form never enters the story, and even the fantasy elements involving old yakuza families, Mexican cartels, and Michael Shannon as the epitome of Asian inappropriation (for laughs, of course) end up cancelling one another out through sheer overkill. Occasionally, the script, adapted by Zak Olkewicz, attempts to humanize the characters by presenting their respective back stories, but it only adds to the confusion. I have no idea if any of this was in the original novel, and it’s pointless to point out the disconnects between what you get on screen and how things really are in Japan, because Japan is simply a convenient construct to exoticize what is at base a pedestrian crime comedy. The only localized aspect I appreciated was the running joke in which Ladybug’s repeated attempts to get off the train were thwarted by the Shinkansen’s strict rule of keeping the doors open for only 30 seconds at each stop. Hey, I’ve been there.
In English, Japanese and Spanish. Opens Sept. 1 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Piccadilly (050-6875-0075), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
Bullet Train home page in Japanese