Brad Pitt is likable having fun with surprise cameos, but this film is too long and repetitive, with gruesome overkill that is anything but thrilling. Pitt would be the first person to agree that it’s the stuntmen who are the real stars and so is the special effects department. Maybe the most interesting fact is that it was all shot on a soundstage on a backlot in Los Angeles.
Ladybug (Pitt) is an assassin who wants to retire. Throughout his career he’s had some some of the worst bad luck of any lethal killer. It’s just gone wrong for him too many times. His handler, code-named Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) succeeds in getting him to get involved in one more job, only directing him with her voice through his earpiece. He’s reluctant, until he gets on the world’s fastest Bullet Train through Japan. That’s when he runs into a number of other assassins on the same hot trail who keep getting in his way.
Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) uses the speeding train to introduce the bloody encounters with an eclectic batch of dangerous killers. The film is adapted from the Japanese mystery-fiction book “Bullet Train.” It was written by best-selling, award-winning Kōtarō Isaka. The screenplay, written by Zak Olkewicz, tries to be clever, but we didn’t find this thriller very thrilling. Dialogue is delivered so fast, it’s hard to understand. Many of Pitt’s quick comeback lines should have landed with bigger laughs, but get lost mixed with the sound of the train and his soft, breathy delivery.
That is especially true of the banter between Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) who present themselves as twins. They grew up together, but you’ll see there is no physical or racial resemblance. Their patter tries too hard to be too cool for the room.
The briefcase they were transporting, filled with money, disappears on the train. Eventually, as the other characters join the chase, it becomes a game of hot potato. Lemon and Tangerine are two of the more fun aspects of the chase. It’s clear that Leitch likes them too, but he repeats one particular shot of one of their previous jobs ad nauseam.
Prince (Joey King) is another assassin who has a clandestine mission of her own. Funny that her character is named Prince, since we’ just saw her playing one tough medieval martial arts maiden in The Princess. She doesn’t have as many violent stunt moves in this one. Here, she’s calm, cool, collected and pretty in pink, but we really got tired of seeing her standing in the aisle trying to look tough and then crying as the little girl in distress as a device to get her way. Her character wasn’t given much depth and her backstory reveal isn’t that gripping.
Michael Shannon shows up as the ultimate slaughterer with wild hair and maniacal, wide-eyed, spitting rage. He’s aptly named The White Death. This is a guy with no conscience or remorse, and frankly, he lets the audience in on the joke that he’s having one good time playing this evil-incarnate criminal mastermind. Shannon gleefully engages his characterization.
More would be assassins show up for stunt-filled battles on this moving train. They include Kimura (Andrew Koji), Hiroyuki Sanada (slated for John Wick 4),Benito A Martínez Ocasio (Bad Bunny), and The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who shows up late in the film targeting the unluckly Ladybug. But she neither lasts long nor does much.
This production gave work to a huge crew of stunt, special and visual effects people who got to play with lots of tools, seemingly throwing in elongated slo-mo shots in the final cut only because they could use it. If this movie were to ever be nominated for any kind of award, it would only be for sound design, music or how many scenes contain outrageous stunts. The crafty, slyly satirical use of pop and standard tunes during some truly gruesome scenes is a clue not to take any of it too seriously.
The two major flaws are Leitch’s direction and the editing (Elisabet Ronaldsdóttir). Seems no one on this project could bear cutting their favorite scenes. It begins to feel tedious by the time the train reaches its predictable final destination, leaves us on the tracks at least half an hour too long. This film is a cartoonish action-comedy, superimposed on a super gross and grisly backdrop even Pitt and the rest of the cast can’t save. This Bullet Train goes off the rails as a fast trip to nowhere.
Columbia Pictures. 2 hours 7 minutes. R
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