Bullet Train Is a Fun Ride, Though Not Much More Than That

Bullet Train is a kinetic star-studded action/assassin romp, with lots of high-energy, witty, choreographed fight scenes and lots of high-energy, witty, choreographed verbal sparring. It’s a huge relief to watch a spy film with some style and pizzazz after the colorless drab of The Gray Man, even if Bullet Train ultimately has is about little but its own cheerful inconsequence.

Plot Comes at You Fast on a Bullet Train

Based on the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, Bullet Train starts with a typical McGuffin plot. Assassin Ladybug (Brad Pitt) has to snatch and grab a mysterious locked case from a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto.

From there director David Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz pile on plot in great splashy gobs.

Two British assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) are also on the train. They have rescued the recently kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of the White Death (Michael Shannon) and are taking him back to his father.

Meanwhile, the Prince (Joey King), an assassin dressed as a schoolgirl for some reason, is hatching an intricate scheme involving the young son of Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji).

A couple of other assassins—the Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio) and the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) also show up. So does a deadly poisonous snake, a lot of Japanese snack foods, and a series of flashbacks to a really striking number of wife murders. If you are a wife, your chances of surviving this movie are surprisingly low. Someone has to die to inspire revenge, and wives are, apparently, preferred. Being a wife; it’s bad luck.

Luck and Fate

You could argue that using the “revenge for the murdered wife” trope three times (at least) in the same film is bad writing. And you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But Bullet Train is aware that it’s a jury-rigged farrago of coincidence and reheated storylines.

Ladybug shuffles through the film muttering about his bad luck. The Prince boasts about her good luck. The White Death, a Russian lord of the Japanese underworld, likes to play Russian roulette with his gun before shooting his victims. Happenstance and fate are always big players in heist movies. But here chance is virtually the protagonist.

When chance is your hero, you aren’t nailed down to the rules of fictional probability. Bullet Train gleefully jumps the tracks of likelihood early and never comes back.

Singly, each of the twists is familiar from lots of other films: the mistaken identity, the dead guy who comes back to life, the confession that this character improbably knows that one. But here they are all repeated over and over in increasingly frantic and unlikely permutations. The train ride is one revelation after another, interspersed with gunshots, brutal fists to the face, and the occasional snake bite.

Not Tarantino, but Not Bad

Leitch is an inspired stunt director with a love of Hong Kong cinema, as his work on Atomic Blonde made clear. But the hyperactive narrative technique here (including a delightful short history of a water bottle) owes less to Woo and Chan than to Quentin Tarantino or the Coen Brothers.

Bullet Train has some of the snarky energy of Pulp Fiction or Raising Arizona, but not the intelligence or soul. Leitch doesn’t deflate tropes or turn them inside out.

Ladybug smilingly offers his opponents self-help koans and suggests non-violence is a better way. But he isn’t going to actually walk out of the genre fiction the way Samuel Jackson’s Jules does. The improbabilities of the story aren’t treated as myth or irony. The bullet train just goes one direction fast; it doesn’t stop to consider where it’s going, or what it’s saying.

One thing it hasn’t thought through fully is its casting. Asian Americans have criticized the film for using the usual white Hollywood stars in the lead role of a Japanese story set in Japan. Author Kōtarō Isaka says he doesn’t see it as a problem. That’s certainly his prerogative. But at the same time, he’s not living in a culture where Asian people rarely get to see themselves as heroes.

In the American context, the fact that Pitt is the first among an ensemble cast is inseparable from his star power. And that in turn is inseparable from the fact that it’s white men, much more than Asian ones, who get to be stars in Hollywood. Is Ladybug’s stumbling progression over, under and around obstacles really about luck? Or is it about the privilege of being given narrative primacy in his own story?

When you don’t point your train anywhere in particular, though, it can end up taking you somewhere you don’t really want to be.  Still, if you like rapid-fire dialog, solid action sequences, some brilliant cameos, and a lot of close-ups of Brad Pitt giving you his most winning confused-but-raffish smile, this should be a perfectly enjoyable way to spend 126 minutes.

Rating: 6.5/10 SPECS

Bullet Train hits theaters Friday, August 5th. For more on movies in theaters now, follow us here.

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Featured Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.