The early work of a string of directors comes to mind while watching Bullet Train, among them Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Guy Ritchie, Joe Carnahan and Timur Bekmambetov. The difference is that those filmmakers have mostly moved on from this kind of assaultive bloodbath, which pummels you into numbness with its onslaught of glib dark comedy, escalating carnage and over-the-top gore. David Leitch’s directing credits — Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw — have remained firmly tethered to his stunt background, occasionally with entertaining results. But his latest is so busy delivering violent action with a self-satisfied wink that its contorted plotting and one-note characters get real tedious real fast.
Leitch has served on multiple occasions as Brad Pitt’s stunt double, so there’s a certain symmetry in him shepherding a movie that relies so extensively on the star’s insouciant charisma. But even Pitt making a bucket hat look cool can’t rescue this laborious adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle, scripted by Zak Olkewicz.
Unlike the book, in which all the assassins who find themselves at cross-purposes on the Tokyo-to-Kyoto bullet train are Japanese, most of the principal characters have had an international makeover, raising online objections to whitewashing. Core members of the creative team, including the novelist, have defended the casting choices, maintaining that realism is not a big factor in the setting or characters. But it’s perhaps significant that only when the dependably compelling Hiroyuki Sanada steps up to play a key part in the climactic action does anyone onscreen acquire a semblance of depth.
This is a thriller about family, fate and fortune in which the stakes are neutralized by the comic-book extremes of the storytelling. Bullet Train begins with distraught father Kimura (Andrew Koji), a low-level criminal, standing over the hospital bed where his young son lies on life support after being pushed from the roof of a building. Sanada plays the boy’s grandfather, identified only as The Elder (like all the other characters, with dual-language onscreen text), a sternly disapproving man who commands his boozing son to take revenge and restore the family’s honor.
That core story might be mired in the most stereotypical tropes of Asian cinema, but it doesn’t deserve to be so blithely swept aside by Pitt’s character, who goes by the operative name Ladybug, sauntering along the Tokyo streets to a Japanese cover of “Staying Alive.” Convinced he has terrible luck, which leads to frequent unintended deaths on his assignments, Ladybug is a recent therapy convert determined to resolve conflicts peacefully. But his handler (Sandra Bullock, unseen until near the end) persuades him between quips to go back to work, retrieving a briefcase from the bullet train.
His mission proves more complicated than expected when it overlaps with the job of two British assassins going by the names Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), whose bickering doesn’t hide their lifelong fraternal bond. Also on board is The Prince (Joey King), a second-generation killer who makes deft use of her innocent schoolgirl appearance to disarm her foes. The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is an expert in poisons who spends much of the action incognito. One of her victims, The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, aka rapper Bad Bunny), boards the train to avenge the loss of his wife at their wedding in Mexico. And there’s also a deadly snake, stolen from the zoo.
Ladybug keeps working on his personal growth, empathizing with lethal adversaries by offering lame pop-psych maxims like “Hurt people hurt people.” But he doles out his share of pain, as does everyone else en route to Kyoto, where the feared Russian underworld kingpin known as The White Death (Michael Shannon) awaits them all with his squad of hitmen.
It’s dispiriting to see so many capable actors put to such poor use. Even if there’s mild amusement in watching Henry, in a working-class London accent, break down Lemon’s professional encounters according to principals learned from the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s books, the jokes are labored. Pitt gets a laugh giving his hair a quick blowout with the air-dry function on an automated toilet. But mostly the writing tries too hard to allow for the kind of effortlessly funny persona the actor does best.
Likewise, the strenuous action, and the jumbled plot mechanisms devised to tie everyone together. Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela and the stunt team do a serviceable job staging dynamic fights in the train’s tight compartments, with gun violence, knife and sword play, and weaponized use of anything else at hand, from laptops to water bottles to a plushy mascot. But for a movie with so much volatile physicality and bruising punishment, there’s an inertia about the whole thing, a soullessness that makes every contrived smirk grate. We don’t care about who gets pounded to a pulp or shot to pieces because there are no characters to root for — good guys or bad.
There are, of course, the obligatory ironic needle drops, including “Holding Out for a Hero” in Japanese, the early ‘60s pop crossover hit “Sukiyaki” and tracks from Englebert Humperdinck and Peter, Paul and Mary. And there are cameos — major names dropping by uncredited to add to the already overqualified ensemble. One of them, playing the root of much trouble, who dropped out of the assignment that went to Ladybug, is such groaningly obvious casting you wonder how we escaped with so little of him. At two hours-plus, escape may well be on your mind, unless you’re smart enough to dodge this bullet.