Creative limitations sometimes lead to novel solutions, as they can be opportunities for surprise and innovation. Bullet Train, over the course of its steadily annoying two hours, takes absolutely no advantage of these opportunities. The selling point of a locomotive-based actioner set in Japan, starring Brad Pitt and a gauntlet of talented supporting actors including Hiroyuki Sanada, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and Michael Shannon, helmed by one of the guys who directed the first John Wick, should be obvious. Instead, viewers will be surprised to find, as I was, a weirdly boring, frenetic, unfunny comedy-of-errors that owes so much to Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie that both directors should receive some kind of royalty.
We can start with the plot, one of those overly convoluted affairs featuring a lot of characters who don’t initially seem to have any relation to each other but, with the use of pedantic flashbacks and structural quirks like cutting to a sequence “47 minutes earlier” or a segment from the point of view a Fiji water bottle, actually do. Brad Pitt is the highest-paid actor on the bill, but he’s basically a side character, a thief tasked with retrieving a briefcase from a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. I googled “Tokyo to Kyoto” to see how long the journey is supposed to be: two and a half hours. That could be clever for a movie with approximately the same run time, but for some reason this one posits the trip would take the better part of a calendar day. Okay.
On the train with Brad Pitt, codenamed Ladybug, are two contract killers nicknamed Lemon and Tangerine (Johnson and Henry, respectively) transporting the ne'er do well son (Logan Lehrman, giving nothing) of a Russian gangster, and the briefcase Ladybug is supposed to nab. Lemon and Tangerine, who have the mistaken reputation of being twins even though they’re obviously not (one of those situational jokes lifted from the Guy Ritchie playbook that isn’t explicitly racist but somehow manages to feel it), constantly bicker and get on each other’s nerves. Most of the quick, supposedly witty, repetitive dialogue in Bullet Train is derivative of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Johnson handles things the best he can given that he’s actually British and Henry doing what I imagine, because maybe one of his British friends didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth, is his idea of a good British accent. Lemon’s entire philosophy about human interaction is founded on a grave obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. The two spend what feels like 20 minutes arguing over their codenames.
Also on the train is a British assassin nicknamed the Prince (Joey King, accent also bad) hellbent on taking out the previously mentioned Russian gangster — a don known as the White Death who is so legendary and mysterious he doesn’t appear on screen until the last 20 minutes of the movie, by which point you wonder “Isn’t Michael Shannon supposed to be in this?” There’s a pretty funny Channing Tatum cameo, a truly random Ryan Reynolds one, Bad Bunny dies within minutes of his character’s indulgently long introduction, and Zazie Beetz clearly had fun on the one day of filming that she did before her character also dies quickly.
The only people who come out unscathed (besides Pitt, sort of, who has to rely on his natural charisma since the script doesn’t do him any favors) are Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji, who play a father and son entangled in the mess of this one terrible journey. Sanada is one of Hollywood’s most reliable international actors, almost always called upon to play a Japanese character who’s a step above a stereotype while managing to capably convey authority and sensitivity. Koji, whose largest film credit before this was the awful G.I. Joe spin-off Snake Eyes, is on the come-up, a magnetic performer who’s both funny and somber and chameleon-like in the way he changes his appearance from role to role.
Single-setting movies are tricky, not because they’re geographically and, in some ways narratively, restricted, but because, at this point in cinematic history, so many have been done well: Snowpiercer, Train to Busan, The Darjeeling Limited, Strangers on a Train, Source Code. The greatest sin a movie set on a train can commit is making its naturally linear, point A to point B structure confusing, and Bullet Train never takes any time to establish where any of its characters are in relation to one another, nor does it attempt to make any of the sections aesthetically distinct. This is a larger bug with the rest of the movie, which is so digitally pristine, homogeneously set-dressed, and fake-looking that it can be hard (not in a good way) to tell what’s real and what’s CG. And even though the film more than earns its R-rating with the amount of blood and viscera that gets sprayed, its “anything can happen” structure, premised on watery self-help satire and cliched musings on the nature of fate, reads as narratively convenient or, at best, randomly inconsequential.
It’s worth taking the time to marvel at the fact that Pitt has worked multiple times with the two main directors, Tarantino and Ritchie (plus Steven Soderbergh if you smoke a joint then squint), this movie so shamelessly apes. Even if you hate those two, Bullet Train does their filmographies a favor by strenuously highlighting all the elements that actually do work in those movies. Tarantino and Ritchie’s most narratively convoluted stories at least resolve themselves in a satisfying way and what Bullet Train thinks passes for effective dramatic irony instead reveals itself to be outrageously lazy, sometimes culturally stereotypical screenwriting. In particular, Kill Bill, which might be the most obvious inspiration here, walks that fine line between dogged appreciation for Japanese culture and crass trivialization of it, all while nimbly utilizing practical filmmaking and martial arts techniques that, because of their effective execution, justify Tarantino’s ambition. The dizzying verbal dexterity by both directors, even at its most self-referentially irritating, has a certain musicality to it, always aided by actors who are capable of keeping up with the tenor and pace with which it’s delivered.
Which brings me to Bullet Train’s director, David Leitch.
If the Russo Brothers are major filmmakers all too happy to see their work as a cynical numbers game, Leitch and his league of copycats skirt by on the perception of hard-won industry knowledge and technical sophistication that ends up being the exact kind of personality-free dreck that spawns The Gray Man. Leitch, and his John Wick co-director Chad Stahelski, had the somewhat unenviable task of moving beyond the large shadow of the unexpectedly successful franchise they started, an endeavor that began with and continues to be heavily focused on their former careers as stuntmen and choreographers. Stahelski stayed with the series, and while certain trends (namely, long one-take fight sequences) now fall prey to predictability, there is a clear refinement of his directorial vision on display, a more precise articulation of his talents as an action director aware of space and timing.
Leitch, on the other hand, can only grasp at the semblance of a distinct aesthetic. His most recognizable carryovers from the first John Wick film are neon lighting and slow motion, sound and color used as blunt objects. With each of his films, from the overrated Atomic Blonde to the assembly line Deadpool 2 to the cacophonous Hobbs & Shaw and now with Bullet Train, he cuts his supposed skill set short with lackluster fight sequences that end up being edited to hell, loud, ugly setpieces marred by unconvincing CGI, and a fealty to celebrity cameos that neither showcase their unique talents nor add to the passive enjoyment of the film. It’s frustrating because there are brief glimmers of potentially compelling ideas in Leitch’s movies. With Bullet Train, Ladybug is defined by his bad luck and over the course of the film, the audience sees this play out in nominally amusing, chaotic ways that gesture towards the possibility of his finally weaponizing or at least making some kind of useful, narratively satisfying peace with it. But each sequence that illustrates this bad luck is an easy, dull plot contrivance, which, like the rest of the film, narrowly evades looking completely ridiculous by virtue of its flashy, expensive production and the audience’s goodwill towards a cast they know deserves a lot better.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.