True to its title, Bullet Train is a speedy action picture. It’s loaded with an all-star ensemble of intersecting stories that collide in a caper of crime, murder, assassinations, guns, swords, and an exploding train. So much is happening that part of me loves just getting lost in the frenetic energy of deceivers, hitmen, and mafia assassins all fighting and conspiring for money and family. Another part of me also wishes a film this chaotic could find the brakes for a handful of better scenes.
The film does have some loveable enough characters that are enticing to see where they go on this trip. Brad Pitt plays the codenamed hitman Ladybug, aiming for a more nonviolent life. He’s hoping to accomplish his task of stealing a suitcase aboard a bullet train in Japan with little issue. He may not even have to use a gun. Of course, he’s not the only one after the briefcase.
A duo of colorful hitmen known as Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is currently escorting the suitcase and a troublesome mafia boss’s son (Logan Lerman). While Tangerine is short-fused, Lemon is adorable in how he relates everything in life to Thomas The Tank Engine. There’s something so absurdly amusing about hitmen scouring the train looking for who might be the Diesel of the lot. Other occupants involved with the case include a pompous mafia daughter (Joey King), a violent man seeking revenge (Benito A Martínez Ocasio), a bitter father seeking justice (Andrew Koji), a venom-wielding assassin (Zazie Beetz), and a few other surprise guests.
The film tries almost too hard to find the quirkiness in this complicated plot. Nearly every character is given some slick Japanese typography and a fast-paced backstory revealed. This staging goes to some absurd lengths, where one of the longest backstories leads up to the earliest murder. Even an inanimate object is given a backstory that, while playfully silly, feels like fluff. There’s also the iconography of an anime character which is cute but feels like a bit of a half-thought considering how simplistic it portrays the cute nature of Japanese pop culture.
The darkly comedic angle mostly works given the talents assembled. I loved the dry wit of Brian Tyree Henry as he debates Thomas The Tank Engine characters, the devilish deceptions of Joey King, and the nonviolent philosophy of the hapless Brad Pitt. The chemistry is bubbling enough to make for such exciting and hilarious scenes as Henry and Pitt duking it out in a train car where they try to remain quiet. The pacing is slick enough that one can easily overlook how everybody else on the train doesn’t seem to notice all the fighting and dead bodies that pile up on the train.
The action is absurd and fun, although it kinda hits a wall of expected theatrics. The thrilling and overblown nature makes the daring climax of Hiroyuki Sanada and Michael Shannon dueling with swords on a runaway train feel par for the course. Up to that point, however, there are a lot of surprises in who shows up and who gets killed. Pitt is also in perfect form during these violent encounters for trying to be a character who favors nonviolence yet unwittingly ends up having a body count. Unlike a lot of films that feature such characters, he ultimately sticks with his own philosophy rather than having a “screw it” moment before picking up a weapon.
Bullet Train zooms rather breezily through its mixture of action and comedy that it surprisingly works more than I thought it would. The ensemble cast alone is a bit of a draw but the tightly-edited fights and the jump-around story kept my eyes transfixed. There’s just enough wildness on board to be worth the trip.