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?
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.
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.