Flourishes of cinematic brilliance fight superficiality, numbing gore in blackly comic 'Bullet Train'

  • An assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) fends off an attacker, the Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), in one of many well-executed fight scenes in "Bullet Train."

    An assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) fends off an attacker, the Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), in one of many well-executed fight scenes in "Bullet Train." Courtesy of Sony Pictures

 
 
Updated 8/4/2022 8:24 AM

"Bullet Train" - ★ ★

Imagine that Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie conspired to create a blackly comic Grand Guignol version of a classic 1970s disaster film set aboard a super-speedy runaway train populated by outrageously violent gangs from Walter Hill's "The Warriors."

 

That would be David Leitch's "Bullet Train," an overstuffed, frustratingly ambitious mess of a would-be cult movie in which flourishes of cinematic brilliance fight for supremacy against superficial characters, a numbing overload of gore and an approaching sense of tedium during the final act.

"Bullet Train," written by Zak Olkewicz based on Ktar Isaka's novel "Maria Beetle," revels in intricate, spiral storytelling where flashbacks connect two or three seemingly disjunctive scenes, often repeating those scenes, now imbued with new meanings.

An assassin called the Prince (Joey King) uses her cover as a helpless young woman to avoid suspicion in the wannabe cult movie "Bullet Train."
An assassin called the Prince (Joey King) uses her cover as a helpless young woman to avoid suspicion in the wannabe cult movie "Bullet Train." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Isaka's novel included all-Japanese characters. Here, a white male box office star (Brad Pitt) plays the central character, with others apparently cast by international market demographics, including Blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics (and a couple of surprise cameo appearances).

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Pitt plays an inept hitman, code-named Ladybug, who trades quips and huge chunks of exposition with his handler (Sandra Bullock, unseen until the final scene). Despite being cursed by perpetual bad luck, he sets out to steal a silver attache case on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.

His easy assignment becomes threatened by two bickering British assassins, Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), whose deeply mutual affections become explained in a later flashback.

The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) seeks revenge against whoever shoved his young grandson from the roof of a tall building in the brutally gory action tale "Bullet Train."
The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) seeks revenge against whoever shoved his young grandson from the roof of a tall building in the brutally gory action tale "Bullet Train." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Also aboard the bullet train: the Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny, AKA Benito A. Martinez Ocasio), who's out to avenge the killing of his entire wedding party in Mexico; a poisons expert code-named Hornet (Zazie Beetz); plus the Prince (Joey King), adorned in a necktie-and-skirt school uniform just like the iconic schoolgirl assassins in traditional Japanese manga (although King is white).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They and a kajillion Japanese commuters (who mysteriously vanish during the fight scenes) hurtle toward Kyoto, where a ruthless Russian crime lord called the White Death (Michael Shannon on creepy overdrive) awaits with several units of disposable hitmen.

Oops. Almost forgot the deadly African boomslang snake stolen from a zoo in the opening scene. This poisonous serpent (its venom causes internal bleeding) slithers through the train like a fanged motif, but disappointingly disappears by the final scene.

Two bickering British assassins, Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry, left, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), share deeply mutual affections explained in flashbacks during a ride on the "Bullet Train."
Two bickering British assassins, Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry, left, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), share deeply mutual affections explained in flashbacks during a ride on the "Bullet Train." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

"Bullet Train" actually begins as a family revenge tale when a boozer criminal dad named Kimura (Andrew Koji) is shamed by his father, called the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), into taking revenge against whoever shoved his young grandson from the roof of a tall building.

So, a lot of stuff happens in "Bullet Train," where belabored, insipid jokes (Ladybug and Tangerine try to kill each other in the Quiet Car without making noise) undermine the punchy, clever jokes, both visual and verbal.

A master of disguise assassin code-named Hornet (Zazie Beetz) tries to exercise her killing skills on Ladybug (Brad Pitt) in the black comedy action film "Bullet Train."
A master of disguise assassin code-named Hornet (Zazie Beetz) tries to exercise her killing skills on Ladybug (Brad Pitt) in the black comedy action film "Bullet Train." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Several crisply choreographed fight scenes -- tightly edited by Elisabet Ronaldsdottir -- rival Jackie Chan's ability to utilize everything at hand as a weapon: attache cases, laptops, even a bottle of Fiji water that Leitch features in its own superfluous comic montage.

But the more brutal cartoon violence with crimson geysers, exploding heads, slashed throats and severed body parts soon loses its initial shock appeal, prompting Leitch to ramp up the gruesome action to diminishing affect.

Credit the emphasis on action to Leitch's background as a stunt double (he has doubled for Pitt several times).

The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny, AKA Benito A. Martinez Ocasio) is out to avenge the killing of his entire wedding party in Mexico while aboard the "Bullet Train."
The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny, AKA Benito A. Martinez Ocasio) is out to avenge the killing of his entire wedding party in Mexico while aboard the "Bullet Train." - Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Like Leitch's earlier films "Hobbes & Shaw," "Atomic Blonde" and "Deadpool 2," "Bullet Train" doesn't particularly care about creating characters we empathize with or can care for.

Even Pitt, an actor able to squeeze likability and effortless comedy out of underwritten roles, has a tough time keeping Ladybug flying for 100 minutes of explosive entertainment railroaded into a 126-minute movie.

• • •

Starring: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Sandra Bullock

Directed by: David Leitch

Other: A Columbia Pictures release in theaters. Rated R for language, sexual situations, extreme violence. 126 minutes

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