Like the eponymous locomotive it takes place on, BULLET TRAIN, the latest from America’s best action director of the late 2010’s and early 2020’s David Leitch, is a knowingly sleek and fast action flick. While based off a novel written by Kotaro Isaka, Leitch finds the film’s true inspirations in a multitude of the many action films that came before it. With a lot of characters, a lot of backstories, a lot of reveals, and even more homages, it’s a minor feat that BULLET TRAIN stays on track (for the most part).
Holding it all down in a role that simultaneously teases and undermines it’s star’s penchant for finding gold in weird and aloof characters is Brad Pitt. A hitman/retriever looking to turn a new peaceful leaf in his previously violent life, Pitt’s straining-for-zen goof finds himself tasked with retrieving a briefcase aboard a bullet train in Japan. Of course, as Pitt’s character learns, destiny (and writer Zak Olkewicz) have much more silly and violent plans in mind for him. Enter a boat- or, my bad, a train-full of other characters ranging from the Abbott and Costello like hitman-brother duo of Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) to a child-endangering child (Joey King) to even a Russian somehow running an entire Yakuza organization all looking for their scores to settle and baby you have yourself a BULLET TRAIN situation! Don’t worry, there’s even more characters that come and go on throughout the brisk journey with each one essentially transforming the film into a unique sort of sketch filled action flick as Brad Pitt must fight a multitude of assassins with quirks and hang-ups (because what kind of other assassin is there nowadays?).
In it’s first half, BULLET TRAIN, with its constant influx of characters feels unwieldy as Leitch struggles to make the majority of Olkewicz’s smartass script come across as genuinely cool. Whether in the trivial arguments of Taylor-Johnson and Henry’s henchmen or in Pitt’s snarky back and forth’s with his handler, the script feels like someone imitating much more interesting dialogues found in other star loaded action flicks of the past such as RESEVOIR DOGS or LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. It doesn’t help that Leitch seems to see the theory of “show don’t tell” and says “fuck it” and just decides to do both, having characters explain their backstories and plans with over the top diatribes and then successively showing a literal flashback of the event or action the character just described. It’s almost experimental in the way the film strives to have everything in it, whether its characters, plot twists, cameos, or the act of showing and telling.
With a cast this stacked though even the script’s lowest moments still get a certain punch invested in them. Pitt, while not fully embracing the goofiness surrounding him as this writer would hope, makes for an enjoyable central dolt in a cast full of them, what with his constant attempts to complete the job with the least amount of bloodshed possible (which of course is not possible in this film’s world). Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada also arrive and are mainly there to be the film’s serious cyphers as they play genuinely haunted men looking for redemption. While Koji’s avenging father is as one note as can be, Sanada is offered the opportunity to play an elder of wisdom trapped on a train amongst idiots, playing a lovable straight faced, destiny obsessed badass struggling to get all the idiots around him to get their shit together. It’s Taylor-Johnson and Henry however, as the Guy Ritchie outcasts, who steal the show with their constant comedic bickering and most surprisingly, their slowly revealed endearing care for one another. While their whole thing is eventually revealed in a seemingly last minute closure flashback in the final act, the script and the performers make these characters the true representers of the film itself: slickly styled goons who have a bit of heart lying under their idiotic tendencies.
At 2 hours, BULLET TRAIN flies by quick enough to not get too caught up on its penchant for an excess atmosphere that isn’t always as fun as it thinks it is and with Leitch, the film has more than enough sequences of fisticuffs and shootouts to satiate the hungry action mob who came to see long haired Brad Pitt get slammed over a bar by Latin music superstar, Bad Bunny. As always, Leitch keeps the action clear and focused (even as it slowly but surely gets caught up in the film’s increasingly CGI-powered settings) and there’s a welcome balletic and occasionally character driven sense of movement to some of the fight scenes to keep the audience from dozing off. While still refreshingly clear eyed, the action this time around does feel a bit familiar for Leitch at this point but he still manages to sneak in a truly bonkers sequences here or there (you won’t believe that Brad Pitt can slow motion float through a train but you will enjoy the stupid sight of it all).
And then that’s it. The film just kind of ends, literally coming to a screeching halt. Sure, there’s a nice little mid credits scene that ties up an end but it seems that BULLET TRAIN pulls the emergency brake on us. Is that a bad or good thing, I don’t really know. But it is noticeable for sure. But that fits in with the whole film’s mode of operation: a shot of over indulgence that hits blissfully for a few scattered moments while ultimately finding its toughest challenge in trying to actually stay interesting even as it throws everything at the wall.