Well-worn Clichés Get Shiny New Packaging in Bullet Train

There are few things as annoying as a firm belief in your own edginess, but nearly every damn movie now, regardless of genre, feels obligated to stake a self-righteous claim in inclusion as a kind of essential ingredient for modern filmmaking. It’s not exactly a bad thing, but when you regard diversity as a trend that must be adhered to for success, not as something which should be a given, old prejudices tend to be repackaged to a disturbing degree.

Such is the case for Bullet Train, a movie which seems to believe that setting a whole lot of action in a place other than America is a gift it’s bestowing on audiences. With such a mindset, it almost guarantees that locales, script, and pretty much all else suffer by extent. And what gets lost in translation is an opportunity of massive proportions, considering how well director David Leitch makes use of a potentially great setting, a fast-moving train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. That’s at least difficult to screw up, since Leitch has proved his talent for action magic in no less than three modern ass-kicking classics: John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and Deadpool 2.

With such a blood-soaked resume, Leitch is at least right at home in this potentially winning tale of a number of assassins who find themselves on the titular bullet train for a series of seemingly simple tasks, only to discover some very deadly wrinkles in their individual plans. It may have arrived on-screen thanks to a Japanese novel, but this is an American action movie adaptation, and that apparently still means a whole lot of whiteness rather than a majority Japanese cast.

I'm a Bad Bad Guy

Their commitment is such that it’s Brad Pitt who is mostly front and center, even if Bullet Train tries to compensate by diversifying the cast, keeping at least some of the characters as Japanese as their original counterparts, and even gender-swapping one of the most important players. The latter represents an especially egregious failure, ensuring that the setting remains a kind of fetishized window dressing that’s deeply regressive.

Because it turns out that Bullet Train doesn't just want to be thanked for its backdrop, but for including a female villain, even giving her truly cringeworthy dialogue about she’s not defined by being a wife and mother. Such values about female characters are called the bare minimum, but anyone who’s even heard the term femme fatale should be well aware that there is absolutely nothing new whatsoever in a villainess who triumphs thanks to cunningly intelligent manipulation.

That kind of astonishingly deep lack of trust in an audience rarely pays off well, since viewers seem to despise condescension even more than heavy lifting. But credit is due to Bullet Train for mastering the art of hiding its whitewashing in plain sight, safely allowing Brad Pitt to bring on the charm and prove why he’s one of our last movie stars, and beloved to a degree that everyone seems to be mostly ignoring those allegations involving his ex-wife Angelina Jolie.

The rest of the cast follows in Pitt’s wake, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry nearly stealing the show as brothers who are so close-knit that accepting them being referred to as twins is not a question but part of the fun. Not to mention a few cameos that make the most of the kind of self-deprecation that passes as star power in our modern movies.

So This Is a Fridge…

Thing is, even the shiniest objects lose their luster without a good quality foundation. Because before you can say woke, no less than three wives die in Bullet Train via flashbacks. And why wouldn’t they, since the movie takes the laziest route possible to dramatic effect, portraying its female characters as generally delicate flowers who must be nurtured by men in protective home environments unless they happen to be properly devoted to traditional feminine concerns such as looking after the men or children in their lives. Chances are that making much of an impression isn’t in the cards regardless.

The most unintentionally hilarious development of all though might be sticking your ultimate Big Bad with a moniker like the White Death in a movie with whitewashing as its basis for existing. With all the hype and history devoted to this guy, even casting an actor as devoted to a well-honed sense of darkness as Michael Shannon is a kind of joke. A role like the man the White Death is meant to be, calls for a Mickey Rourke type who knows a thing or two about being grizzled by years of hard living and violence.

But actual grizzle is unacceptable in Bullet Train, so a weird haircut and some faux old-age makeup stand in for the real thing. It doesn’t conflict with the movie’s main idea, which mostly invites watchers to sink into their seats and switch those pesky minds right off. I just wish it didn’t have to come at the expense of others.

Rating: 6/10 SPECS

Bullet Train debuts Friday, August 5th. Follow us here for the latest on the movies currently in theaters.

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Featured Image Courtesy of Sony PicturesAnimation.

Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.

She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.