Maybe it’s because of the continuing success of the MCU – a franchise that notoriously cherishes the effects of a good joke – or maybe action movies have felt the need to evolve from the steely eyed brutality of previous decades, but has anyone else noticed how glib action movies are starting to get? I personally point my quivering finger of accusation at the violent but investment-free series of explodey face punchers that keep popping up on Netflix such as 6 Underground, Interceptor, Red Notice and, most recently, The Grey Man; all a clutch of expensive movies where you never really feel that the protagonist is ever in any danger due to the endless stream of matter of fact one liners that dribble from their face instead of copious amounts of blood – hey, don’t get me wrong, I love humour injected into high pressure, cinematic situations, but recently I feel that filmmakers haven’t been getting that balance quite right.
So, with the incredibly jokey looking Bullet Train pulling into theatres, matters didn’t look to be changing anytime soon, however, director David Leitch seems to have found a obvious solution…
Ex-Assasin codename Ladybird has returned back into a life of hired crime, but after attempting a more spiritual lifestyle and only accepting simpler, less karma-bating jobs as “snatch and grabs”, he still laments about his disastrous luck to his ever patient handler, Maria. His current job seems unbelievably simple: cover for the original contact who called in sick, hop on a the bullet train that’s going from Tokyo to Kyoto, recover a particular briefcase and bounce before the train has pulled away from its first stop, but unbeknownst to him, he’s about to find himself an unwitting pawn in a ludicrously complicated game of chess that no one seems to realise they’re playing.
Joining Butterfly on the zippy public transport are Tangerine and Lemon, twins of different ethnicities who are in possession of said case and who are escorting the son of, terrifyingly notorious crime lord, The White Death, home after a brief kidnapping. However, also lurking among the plush seats and refreshment carts are the Prince, an innocent looking girl who is in fact a lethally devious mastermind; the Hornet, a mysterious assasin who is an artist with poisons; ruthless cartel thug, the Wolf who is on a knife-fueled vendetta and vengeful father Yuichi Kimura who is aboard searching for whomever tried to murder his infant son and as each of these violent and dangerous killers shuffle up and down the train, hoping to accomplish their various goals, all Ladybird wants to do is simply step off the train with a case under his arm.
Thus ensuses a relentlessly complex tangle of events that also sees a booby trapped gun, a water bottle full of knock-out power and a venomous snake randomly thrown into the mix in order to make things extra farcical and through a series of credulity straining coincidences all will come into play seemingly to solely confirm Ladybird’s suspicions that his luck does indeed suck a lot of ass.
But who has decided to throw this gaggle of assassins together into such compact surroundings and what is their endgame – and worst of all, what will become of all the players when The White Death himself chooses to interject himself into proceedings?
Desperately trying to stay un-murdered as matter continuously go from bad to utter chaos, Ladybird tries to follow his new, more zen way of looking at the world as everything explodes around him.
Essentially taking a Tarantino-esque group of disparate lunatics, giving it a Guy Pierce-style spit shine and then filtering it through a knowingly sarcastic filter that has Deadpool written all over it, Bullet Train is a movie that goes out of it’s way to be cartoonishly ridiculous to the point of being obnoxious. This means that if you’re the sort of view who visibly cringes when a movie heavily relies on flabbergasting act of deus ex machina and galling amounts of luck in order to force it’s story along, then Bullet Train will no doubt feel like a two hour, neon drenched root canal performed by an unsteady mob doctor high on mescaline. However, if huge, far fetched plot contrivances don’t have you tearing your hair out in frustration, then David Leitch’s goofy extravaganza is a fun, violent, silly pantomime that leans into the absurd whenever it can to be the weirdest actioner it can be.
It helps that Leitch – co-director of John Wick and helmer of similarly dopey action romps as Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw – has a cast fully willing to embrace the exaggerated aspects of a movie so brutally disorganized it drops a flashback sequence for a bottle of water into the middle of a climatic fight sequence. Brad Pitt, repurposing his puppy-eyed dufus from The Mexican into an amiable, bucket-hatted killer, is obviously enjoying the crap out of himself, engaging in knife fights while mangling the advice given to him by a shady life coach and the look of a reluctantly lethal slacker he wears effortlessly well. Elsewhere Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry give Tangerine and Lemon a sort of George and Larry/Laurel & Hardy shtick that entails long speeches about using Thomas The Tank Engine characters to spot personality types and Henry mostly holding his english accent together, while Joey King indulges in effective bouts of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth villainy that belies her Bambi-eyed, schoolgirl exterior. In comparison, Hiroyuki Sananda and Andrew Koji have significantly less fun as a mournful father and a protective Grandfather, but the rest of the colourful cast, that includes Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman and Bad Bunny, aren’t really much more than glorified cameos that sit alongside Sandra Bullock’s mostly voice-only role as Pitt’s handler.
The plot is…. a mess – but then it’s supposed to be, as all the character’s (sometimes literally) stumble over each other in order to make it to their final destination, be it Kyoto station or by the business end of a hollow point, but I found the random reveals and frenzied plot twists to be that of the kind of screwball comedy of errors that feels like Blake Edwards became fused to John Woo after some terrible sci-fi accident.
As it’s Leitch, the numerous scraps are technically sound and cleanly shot (Pitt vs. Bad Bunny is an early highlight) and manages to neatly avoid that annoying glib thing I mentioned earlier by obviously having no intention whatsoever of being taken even remotely seriously. Thus the swapping out of smug, tension-free heroics with gonzo, semi automatic slapstick plays better as a full blown comedy than just a thriller with too many jokes in it.
Messy, hyperbolic and utterly all over the place, Bullet Train nevertheless makes its crass, colourful, chaos work in its favour by being a living cartoon and just having undemanding fun by frequently jumping the tracks.