Bullet Train movie review: total derailment

MaryAnn’s quick take: The cast is, on paper, terrific, but there’s nothing engaging in their bloody savagery. A misfire of a supposed action comedy, this mind-numbing mess is by turns grating, tedious, and infuriating.
I’m “biast” (pro): like the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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There’s a scene in Bullet Train that perfectly illustrates what a misfire this supposed action comedy is. A bunch of rival assassins with overlapping and clashing objectives are all on the same overnight high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Two of them — Brad Pitt’s “Ladybug” and Brian Tyree Henry’s “Lemon” — find themselves in a face-to-face encounter in the quiet car. Naturally, the confrontation turns violent. In a movie that actual took action comedy seriously, this might have been hilarious: How do you beat someone up, maybe even kill them, without making any noise? But here, after the barest nod to the need for silence, rowdy fisticuffs commence, and the only concession to comedy — allegedly — is Pitt snapping at the civilian who shushes them to “eat a bag of dicks”… and then apologizing, because, you see, he’s on a journey to be a better person.

My god, this movie is a mind-numbing mess. The violence, which is copious, is meant to be stylish, but that just means it’s frequently in slow motion. (The light fetishization of Japanese culture may also be offered up as style.) The humor, which is not copious, is perhaps meant to be found in the ironies of hired killers striving for zen calm (Ladybug) or drawing a philosophical approach to human nature from a children’s cartoon (Lemon). The script is about 85 percent people who do terrible things to their fellow human beings chattering about sending peace out into the world, and the wisdom of Thomas the Tank Engine. Haha?

Bullet Train Joey King
I, too, would prefer to read a book than endure this movie.

Perhaps we have novelist Kōtarō Isaka, upon whose book this is based, to thank for that, and for much else that is grating, tedious, and/or infuriating here. But Bullet Train also serves double duty as more cinematic emptiness from director David Leitch, following up, for some reason that no one asked for, the nihilism of his Hobbs & Shaw and Deadpool 2. Redeeming upsides, there are none. This is the opposite of movie-movie escape, which is about the most we could have hoped for from this poor pastiche of Tarantino.

The cast is, on paper, terrific. Up on the screen, those with the juiciest roles are Pitt (Allied, The Big Short) and Henry (Godzilla vs. Kong, Joker) plus Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Tenet, Avengers: Age of Ultron) — as Lemon’s partner, “Tangerine” — and Joey King (Wish Upon, Going in Style), as the deceptively schoolgirlish psychopath “Prince.” And yet beyond appreciation for the craft of their attempts at character building, it’s tough to care about any of them, even in a detached, wry way. It’s enough so that you almost feel better for some of the other terrific cast members — Andrew Koji (Fast & Furious 6), Hiroyuki Sanada (Avengers: Endgame, Minions), rapper Bad Bunny, Michael Shannon (Knives Out, What They Had), Logan Lerman (Shirley, Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero), Masi Oki (The Meg, Fired Up!), Zazie Beetz (The Bad Guys, Seberg), Karen Fukuhara (The Boys, Suicide Squad) — whose talents are barely used at all. Rather than seeing them as unfortunately underutilized, we can congratulate them on their lucky escape.

Bullet Train Brad Pitt
Same, Brad. Hard same.

Where is the dumb fun that would be very welcome right now? Leitch seems to have forgotten how to direct action as a kinetic ballet of brutality, as he did with his earlier work in John Wick and Atomic Blonde: there’s nothing even minimally engaging in the endless bloody savagery. There’s nothing even vaguely fascinating or even surprising in the constant flashbacks filling us in on the backstories of all the bad guys. (This mess is also butt-numbing, too, running just over two hours. It feels much longer.) There are so many dead wives motivating these men! I am begging male storytellers — especially those who fancy themselves so very inventive — to please find ways to animate your male characters that do not involve dead women. (King’s Prince appears to have been gender flipped from the book. This is not as feminist as the movie appears to think it is.)

The height of Bullet Train’s cleverness? Celebrity cameos that are nothing but cynical pop-culture references, meaningless in themselves, mere geek cheek. This is depressing, coldly soulless cinema.


more films like this:
John Wick [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK]
Grosse Pointe Blank [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV | Disney+ UK]

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RogerBW
RogerBW
patron
movie lover
Sat, Aug 06, 2022 4:10pm

I haven’t read the source material either… but I can’t help noticing that the character names in it, in this book by a Japanese person that’s set in Japan, are, er, Japanese.

I mean, the usual adaptation trick of moving it to the USA would have been one thing. (All right, the USA calls a mere 35 miles at 150mph “high-speed rail”, so that could have been a little tricky.) But leaving it in the Japanese setting and then having almost no Japanese characters or actors? That’s pathetic.

Beowulf
Beowulf
patron
moviegoer
Sat, Aug 06, 2022 5:00pm

Damn. I was looking forward to some mindless fun, not just the mindless part. By not attending, though, I can avoid the tedious ritual of folks thinking that Brad Pitt (me, that is) is personally attending a showing in their town.
Oh, and thank the baby Jesus for a new illustration on your first page.

Hot enough for you?

Beowulf
Beowulf
patron
moviegoer
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Sun, Aug 07, 2022 6:42pm

Death Valley! No, I actually thought your were just outside of London in a country experiencing climate-induced heat waves’ If it is snowing there now then I am WAY off….

stucifer
stucifer
moviegoer
Sat, Aug 06, 2022 6:05pm

oof, this is disappointing! despite the whitewashing of the adaptation (and not to underplay this grevious sin – stop doing this, studios) the trailer looked fun and I was cautiously looking forward to catching this one. Even reading this review, I was thinking “yeah ok, lowered expectations for sure but I’ll probably still go,” but the dead wives observation makes this a pass. Damn, what a shame.

guido
guido
moviegoer
Mon, Aug 08, 2022 12:40pm

My bad luck… I read MaryAnne’s review while sitting comfortably in the third row of one of the best movie theaters of Barcelona, waiting for the projection start. Two choices, after reading the review: going back to the ticket counter and ask for a refund, on the basis some solid pretext, or Maintain my central seat position, hoping that MaryAnne had seen the movie in a particularly negative state of mind. I chose the second solution, and it was the WRONG choice 😱

Beowulf
Beowulf
patron
moviegoer
reply to  guido
Mon, Aug 08, 2022 8:37pm

Great post.