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Bullet Train Review: Brad Pitt’s Latest Action Vehicle Skids Right Off the Rails


Bullet Train
Brad Pitt in Bullet Train//Sony Pictures

Fans of the intensely physical action in David Leitch’s John Wick and Atomic Blonde and the irreverent, envelope-pushing humor of his Deadpool 2 will find the director’s latest offering, Bullet Train, a breezy delight. Those who seek silly, witty, pointless fun boasting major stars (and major cameos) will no doubt enjoy the hundreds-of-miles-per-hour thrills that Sony’s action-comedy offers. But, those of us who bought a seat on the train lured by the marketing campaign’s promise of Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie-like brilliance, however, will be far less impressed. Those viewers will soon be hoping to hop off this convoluted star vehicle as it barrels towards the trainwreck it telegraphs as soon as it leaves the station.

Bullet Train follows one very lucky assassin who believes himself to be very unlucky. His name is Ladybug, he is played by Brad Pitt, and he has a handler with whom he communicates only by phone, though most moviegoers will instantly recognize Sandra Bullock’s voice on the other end. Ladybug boards the high-speed train between Tokyo and Kyoto, tasked with finding a briefcase containing ransom money. Unbeknownst to him, other killers are on the shinkansen. There is the sweet little Prince, played by Joey King as a supposedly innocent schoolgirl whose bite is as fierce as the pink outfit she dons; “siblings” Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Tangerine (Brian Tyree-Henry) — yes, as in the fruit — are carrying a mysterious passenger to supposed safety; Andrew Koji is aboard on a revenge mission; Bad Bunny joins the party as a mysterious killer called The Wolf, though Leitch quickly dispatches him before he’s asked to actually act. Zazie Beetz also appears to take a shot (or two) at Ladybug, though the biggest threat may be a mysterious mobster known only as The White Death, whose identity and past misdeeds drive much of the action.

Over and over again these various killers confront and beat up each other, allowing Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz to deliver what audiences really want to see — crazy fight scenes and wild stunts. While Ladybug does most of the fighting, Lemon and Tangerine provide most of the blood and gore, though not nearly enough laughs. A bit about their code names is both repetitive and juvenile, and it’s those kinds of comic asides that make Bullet Train feel unnecessarily drawn-out. The film tries really hard to achieve the amusing-while-serious greatness of films like Kill Bill, but it feels derivative and ineffective, and in the end, succeeds only in terms of its fight choreography.

Bullet Train
Joey King in Bullet Train/Sony Pictures

The film twists itself into knots, becoming increasingly convoluted and silly, and it ignores the few rules that are established, such as the fact that the train stops for exactly one minute at each station, as it does nothing with that built-in ticking clock. Ladybug encounters various characters, constantly cursing his supposed bad luck in an amusing wink-wink to an audience that already knows just how lucky he is with each bullet he improbably avoids.

Even the below-the-line values are surprisingly iffy for a movie that speeds past “tell” and heads right into “show.” Sure, the editing by Elisabet Ronaldsdottir is fast-paced, as it must be in order to keep up with the action, but it isn’t exactly crisp, clear, and seamless, as the rapid-fire avalanche of images ultimately collapses on itself. Though the speeding train barrels past the beautiful Mt. Fuji, Jonathan Sela’s cinematography does it no justice, and one suspects the heavy involvement of the same thoughtless CGI that later appears in the film’s explosive climax.

The stunts are, to be sure, unindictable and the best part of the film, by far. They’re the reason to go see it, and fans of the hyperkinetic style that Leitch has mastered will not be disappointed. Stunt coordinator Greg Rementer might win an Oscar if that category existed, and Pitt deserves the usual accolades for giving himself entirely to a physically demanding role that he once again nails.

Bullet Train is popcorn entertainment and, after you watch it, you realize it isn’t anything beyond that. Far be it for this critic to critique silly, slapstick fun. The problem is that the film styles itself as something stylish, as something crafty, slick, and sharp. Undone by a plot that has no center rail, Bullet Train is anything but. As it speeds from one mostly predictable sequence to the next, it becomes all too apparent what the next stop is, and what’s worse is that its predictability gives way to tediousness. Whether audiences hop aboard and it merits a sequel, only time will tell, but one ride was enough for this passenger.

Grade: C-

Sony Pictures will release Bullet Train in U.S. theaters on Friday, Aug. 5.

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