Remember when summer blockbusters were fun?
The plots rarely matter, the set pieces entertain, and the characters were memorable for their quirks regardless of how flimsy or one note they might seem.
Bruce Willis climbs through an air vent and walks on broken glass; Arnold Schwarzenegger crashes through a window with a machine gun; Tom Cruise runs from explosions.
What happens along the way and why are irrelevant. Somehow meaning became essential to having a good time or else the film had to be based on a comic book or some other IP.
David Leitch’s new film leans heavily into the dialogue-heavy, strangers destined to collide by coincidence or fate style of writer/director Guy Ritchie and Leitch’s Bullet Train aspires to be a more action heavy version of Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
The premise feels like an amalgamation of samurai films, British gangster flicks and outrageous comic book action.
Five killers unwittingly find themselves at odds with each other and mysterious onlookers as they seek a briefcase stashed on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
While each assassin is given their own motivation and storyline, audiences are driven through confounding series of events mainly through the eyes of Ladybug, a self-proclaimed “snatch-and-grab” guy with a bad luck streak that pushes him away from violence.
Bullet Train simply doesn’t work without a very game, yet endlessly casual Brad Pitt at the center of it all as Ladybug.
Pitt elevates what would otherwise be a very mediocre movie with a laidback charisma reminiscent of his scene-stealing turn as Chad in the Coen Brothers’ 2008 black comedy Burn After Reading. No matter how absurd or avant-garde the situation Ladybug finds himself in, Pitt can stabilize and center the scene with affability while holding his own in some unique hand-to-hand combat sequences.
It’s rare to see an actor of Pitt’s caliber perform as many of his own stunts as the Oscar winner does in Bullet Train though Leitch’s film doesn’t have the same amount of action that one might expect from the director of Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2. But each moment is hard-hitting and only relies of CGI effects in the third act to hammer home the finale with bloody gusto.
For a film that relies heavily on an ensemble cast to surround Pitt with, Bullet Train is a heavy mixed bag of good and bad performances.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry often steal the show as a pair of professional yet bumbling British mercenaries with a pension for Thomas the Tank Engine and shooting first, asking questions later. Much of the film’s humor comes in moments with their Lemon and Tangerine squaring off verbally with Pitt’s Ladybug and a tighter focus on these three hitmen could have made for a more compelling narrative.
Sandra Bullock appears just often enough to work in limited time as Ladybug’s handler in a straight-forward role, while more puzzling performances are given by Michael Shannon, Joey King, and Zazie Beetz. What at first glance might be a gimmick cameo from rapper Bad Bunny actually brings a lot of needed variety to Bullet Train as his assassin codenamed “The Wolf” has the most compelling backstory and the rapper gives a strong enough effort in his biggest role to date to make the character work.
Stylistically, Leitch propels Bullet Train down a fast track with swift camera movements that accentuate the action and flashy, artistic sequences that develop the backstories of each assassin. Though it doesn’t always land with the same gusto and occasionally feels repetitive, the direction and cinematography have a unique flair that sets Leitch’s film apart from the average action flick and helps engage audiences in times their attention might wander.
Bullet Train might not hit as hard as some viewers might like from an R-rated action flick, but there’s enough powering the film’s engines to give audiences a casually entertaining feature to see in theaters during the August doldrums at the box office.