From John Wick and Atomic Blonde to Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & ShawDavid Leitch’s career trajectory has been toward greater jokiness, and that path reaches its highest point — or, more accurately, rock bottom — with Bullet Train, an adaptation of Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel that leans vigorously into R-rated murder-and-mayhem humor. More than slightly resembling Joe Carnahan’s 2006 fiasco Smokin ‘Aces, Leitch’s latest is a gleeful bloodbath played for laughs, the trouble being that the more it strains for zaniness, the less it delivers. Brad Pitt’s game lead performance notwithstanding, it’s the cinematic epitome of a try-hard.
Adapted by Zak Olkewicz, Bullet Train (August 6) takes place on a high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto whose passengers are primarily hired assassins (with cutesy nicknames) of every creed, color, and nationality. At the head of that class is Ladybug (Pitt), who’s hired by his handler di lui (Sandra Bullock, in a largely voice-only role) to board the train and retrieve a silver briefcase that his employer di lui covets. This is Ladybug’s first assignment since a hiatus during which his therapist encouraged him to stay upbeat, find inner peace and embrace the self-help Zen platitudes that Pitt spouts with the gee-whiz positivity of a newly minted true-believer or, at least, a wannabe-positive pupil. Still, he can’t shake the sense that he’s snakebit (something that’ll become literal later), and that impression is exacerbated once his ride begins and, after locating his target, he’s set upon by The Wolf (Bad Bunny), the first of his many lethal adversaries.
As Ladybug endeavors to accomplish his goal, Bullet Train also focuses on a variety of other desperate-to-be-colorful killers. The most insistent of that group are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), a couple of British “twins” who dress stylishly and bicker constantly. Lemon can’t shut up about Thomas the Tank Engine, whose series he believes is a metaphor for life and whose characters encapsulate every human type, and Olkewicz’s script hammers this running gag into the ground despite the fact that it’s never, for a single second , clever or funny. Henry and Taylor-Johnson make for a nice at-odds brotherly pair, but their heavily accented mile-a-minute banter is unbearably labored; it’s as if they’re auditioning for one of the innumerable late-’90s crime films spawned by Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and pulp Fiction.
There are additional deviant psychos populating Bullet Train, including The Prince (Joey King), a young girl responsible for pushing a young boy off a department store rooftop in order to lure the kid’s Father (Andrew Koji) onto the train and use him as her pawn in a homicidal scheme. King wears preppie clothes, boasts dark eyeliner and poses more than she mugs, which can’t be said about Henry and Taylor-Johnson, who appear to have been told by Leitch to do their very best potty-mouthed Looney Tunes schtick. Pitt operates in a similarly excessive vein, his inanities regarding non-violence (“Hurt people hurt people”) striving to be at absurd odds with his knack for ending others’ lives. Pitt’s performance feels like a marriage of John Wick and his stoner di lui from True Romance (or Jeff Bridges’ The Dude), which might be winning if he were given anything amusing to actually do or say.
Bullet Train is a frantic, flailing, cacophonous cartoon, embellished with Japanese animé flourishes (including a blacklight-drenched train car where an actor wears a big puffy animated-character costume) and aggressively over-the-top aesthetics. Leitch’s camera twirls, whooshes, rotates and tumbles with abandon, the action flip-flopping between manic hand-to-hand and firearm chaos and slow-motion strutting, all as title cards (replete with Japanese text) and flashbacks further gussy up the proceedings . Everything is drenched in bold, bright colors and set to unexpected music — an English punk track here, a Japanese pop song there, and a country ballad thrown in for good measure — but to little appreciable end. Even Leitch’s trademark combat choreography gets lost in the razzle-dazzle shuffle; there isn’t a single memorable skirmish amidst this sea of fast cuts and dull quips.
The briefcase these assassins seek is a MacGuffin that’s as unimportant as the underlying reason they find themselves at each other’s throats, and yet Bullet Train eventually winds up having to untangle its various narrative strands so it can arrive at its breakneck conclusion. It’s impossible, however, to care about any of these players or their ultimate fates, no matter the routine references to luck and destiny, two forces that factor into this saga’s equation at haphazard — and thus meaningless — intervals. One of the primary problems here is that, despite oft-discussed notions about a grander plan at work, it never feels like anyone is at the helm of this runaway venture. The film throttles one around in service of random, gory, spittle-flying carnage, and though there are poisonings, stabbings, beatings and nastiness galore in this stew, what stands out are the missing ingredients: comedic inspiration and a tone that doesn’t provoke almost instantaneous exhaustion.
“Pitt’s performance feels like a marriage of John Wick and his stoner from ‘True Romance’ (or Jeff Bridges’ The Dude), which might be winning if he were given anything amusing to actually do or say.“
Bullet Train is Leitch’s third straight attempt at melding potent brutality with rat-a-tat-tat silliness, and in this instance, the emphasis on the latter proves so great that the former affords almost no thrills. Men and women fight, leap onto trains, break through doors, tussle with snakes, and grapple with those fancy if confusing multi-function Japanese toilets, but in the end there’s almost nothing to show for it. The affectation is consuming and crushing, squashing any flicker of invention and, more crucially, derailing the balance of the hardcore and the tongue-in-cheek that Leitch desires. Many fine actors huff and puff their way through this two-hour ride, whose finale features not only the appearance of a stoic (and semi-bored-looking) Michael Shannon but also, fittingly, a head-on collision that doesn’t stop things from proceeding onward, and they all emerge from it the worse for wear.
Incapable of devising a simile for his wretched condition, Pitt’s Ladybug opines that bad luck follows him “like… something witty.” His failure di lui to come up with a suitable joke is Bullet’s Train own, causing it to crash and burn long before it reaches its disappointing destination.