Bullet Train hits theaters on August 5, 2022.
David Leitch’s Bullet Train takes itself as seriously as Crank, Smokin’ Aces or Shoot ‘Em Up; it is either a recommendation or a warning. Filmmaker John Wick and Atomic Blonde translates his brand of electromagnetic action with all the weirdness of the best action films of the 2000s. Compared to Netflix’s The Gray Man, it’s a ray of hope that the American action can be both colorful and chaotic – Bullet Train is the movie Chris Evans’ The Gray Man performance deserves, quite frankly. It’s far from bulletproof, and the action-comedy elements don’t always land, but there’s still enough zip and humility to keep the good times rolling.
Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapts Kôtarô Isaka’s Japanese novel of the same name with blatant post-Pulp Fiction overtones. Brad Pitt stars as a hitman named “Ladybug” who returns to action for what should be a simple smash-and-snatch goal. This promised ease leads to the film’s humor as Ladybug has to deal with many unforeseen obstacles. Rival assassins punch their tickets, exotic reptiles escape from cages, and Ladybug is convinced his bad luck will never end as he searches for the package within reach. There is no surefire victory, which Ladybug learns the hard way as the bodies mount and her aversion to guns becomes ever greater prejudice.
Bullet Train isn’t just Pitt’s comedic shooting range. The Leitch-edited Killer Thug Gallery sells their Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry quirks as the fruity nicknamed Tangerine and Lemon – the latter being a Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast, as we’re told. frequently reminded – of musician Bad Bunny as a married avenger known as The Wolf (a moonlit howl accompanies his entrances). Logan Lerman is unrecognizable as the troublemaker son of a Russian crime boss, with a tattooed and dangerous Michael Shannon playing White Death, says a ruthless crime boss in Japanese-style masks and tousled silver hair . Everyone has their schtick – Lemon continues to liken the characters to Thomas’s friends, Tangerine’s brass knuckles talk, White Death has only been seen slaughtering his enemies in slow-motion flashbacks – and It’s okay. Bullet Train doesn’t fish for anything more complicated than warring mercenaries battling for scores.
Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada bring their mastery of martial arts to the rail battlegrounds, but some might be disappointed to find that the big explosions are reserved for the finale. That’s not to say Leitch’s action choreography fails before; they’re just shorter, easily editable brawls with actors like Henry and Pitt. Koji single-handedly demolishes the adversaries of the Cinemax Warrior series, but struggles with Joey King’s sweet Schoolgirl Prince here for reasons I’ll leave undefined. There are elements of Bullet Train that fall victim to America’s less fluid and clunkier action, and yet it’s never as blatant as something like – I hate to keep pestering – The Gray Man or Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Pitt’s ability to reinforce his action sequences with laughs makes all the difference. Ladybug continues to recite her therapist’s teachings to counter Tangerine’s brash aggression or White Death’s unresolved anger issues, and Pitt’s behavior doesn’t let the gimmick drown. Henry realizes the same with the wisdom of Lemon’s Thomas the Tank Engine, as he continues to race the bullet train to Kyoto for a “Diesel”, aka the main villain complicating everyone’s tangled missions. There are plenty of cackle-aloud moments, like when the sound designers use the perfect *thump* when Ladybug hits Tangerine in the noggin with a glass water bottle, even though other gags (like a disagreement that Lemon and Tangerine have on their body count) don’t land as well. What’s promised on the tin — bullets and trains — comes unfiltered, though at times overly forgiving in the film’s thematic “what goes around comes around” resolutions.
You’re here for the action, and that’s what’s consistent. Pitt’s common strategy is to take licks until Ladybug emerges victorious thanks to someone else’s bad luck, but even then it portrays nasty physical punishment. Best glimpses are Tangerine and Ladybug stopping their dealership car heckling so a pleasant salesman (a badly used Karen Fukuhara) can offer them drinks or whatever happens after Ladybug and [redacted] reach their final boss fight. Henry and Pitt trade stealthy slaps and slaps during a respectful “quiet car” dusting. Zazie Beetz shines as another nimble Ladybug opponent, while a cartoon feline mascot revels as Ladybug’s punching bag. Leitch incorporates prop comedy as fighters integrate their environmental surroundings to ensure the releases remain fresh while the violence remains at a bloody premium – fatalities include severed heads, slashed faces and more bloody spurts that don’t skimp on graphic brutality. The influence of Japanese yakuza movies isn’t lost on Leitch, beyond the onscreen text fonts and neon-like glow under Tokyo’s nighttime skyline.
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