Bullet Train opens with a scene of a man — The Father (Andrew Koji) looking at his son, who is lying in a hospital bed after being thrown from a building. For a movie directed by stunt performer-turned director, David Leitch, it’s a bit of a surprise that it carries its emotional and thematic center all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto. Leitch was at least partially responsible for John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw, and a host of other action-heavy blockbusters, so it was refreshing and beneficial to keep the film focused, while not losing any action sequences.
After this opening scene, we’re introduced to Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a former assassin who is now a pacifist due to causing accidental deaths because of what he perceives to be his perpetual bad luck. He boards the bullet train leaving from Tokyo in order to retrieve a case that The Prince (Joey King) is also after, and The Prince feels the opposite of Ladybug — she feels that she has perpetual good luck. Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are also after the case, as their boss told them to protect it. All the while, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), The Father’s father, is determined to ensure his grandson’s safety, all while preaching the role of fate.
Fate, luck, and agency are all the main driving forces of this movie — besides the bullet train. Akin to something like In Bruges, these aren’t heartless, robotic assassins with no regard for their actions. They like to talk about why they do the things they do, whether they’re even responsible for what they do, and the repercussions of what they do. This all gives the film a good center for its action. Whether the reasoning holds water is beside the fact, but it helps to know why we should care about each fight and what the stakes are. So when this mega cast (there are so many more actors than I’ve mentioned, including a couple surprise cameos) goes up and down the train fighting different people in different combinations, you’re bought in to each encounter.
Particularly, I was most invested in those characters who are given emotional motivations, as opposed to ideological ones. Lemon and Tangerine are, despite (or even because of) their constant bickering, brothers, and that provides a solid emotional core, especially in specific key moments. Lemon’s affinity for Thomas the Tank Engine endears him even further than you might guess. As well, though it’s not executed as effectively, The Father’s motivations are always squarely on protecting his son. This is in contrast to Ladybug, who we know almost nothing about, beside his newfound ideologies of peace and zen. All that works well enough in its own right, and I appreciate any genuine attempt at actually saying something for a blockbuster like this, but I always prefer to have something to latch onto emotionally as well.
With all these characters, motivations, and plot lines, it can be difficult to keep things straight. If you go into this looking for some turn-your-brain-off fun, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Leitch has gotten more ambitious than John Wick, which is just about one guy seeking revenge. Bullet Train, rather, has about as many twists and turns of a Quentin Tarantino flick, while also having the fast-talking, sometimes off-color quippiness of a Guy Ritchie vehicle (fittingly, Pitt starred in Ritchie’s Snatch and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood), and the violence, flashbacks, and cast of characters of both of them put together. For the most part, Bullet Train is successful in its plotting, but it’s 126 minutes long, and at a certain point, you can only take so many twists. There are maybe four too many instances of, “And then THIS happened, and then THEY came out and shot THIS person.” It eventually goes past fun and engaging, and branches into exhausting.
Leitch doesn’t quite hit the height of humor that either of the aforementioned filmmakers tend to, but the jokes work more often than they don’t. Pitt is one of our greatest living actors, and he’s largely excellent in this, but for some reason it doesn’t quite track to see the guy from The Tree of Life throwing out the same kinds of disposable one-liners that run rampant in today’s major blockbuster market. But while the spoken jokes don’t always work, Bullet Train has a high success rate when it comes to physical comedy. Whether it’s creative action, actors’ expressions (Brian Tyree Henry is in this, so you can be sure there’s some great facial acting), or other sight gags I won’t spoil here, this film is off-the-rails entertaining. Excellent creativity is on display here from the beginning.
And where there’s smoke, there’s fire, because physical comedy is only the tip of the ice berg for what this movie does visually. The first two acts have great moments of hand-to-hand combat in tight spaces aboard this bullet train, and each one is unique in its own way. So many different items are used as weapons, and the film’s tricks will keep you guessing. When Leitch keeps the action reeled in and contained, it works great. But when the third act comes around, along with there being too many twists and turns, it also gets way too ambitious with its action. Bullet Train is at its best when its action and dialogue is intimate and focused on the specific character in the specific moment. But by the end, it becomes too grand, breaking some of the suspension of disbelief that it meticulously built up through its first two-thirds.
This Bullet Train doesn’t quite smoothly stop at the station, but it’s still a smooth and enjoyable ride. With plot lines and characters galore, you’re likely to get lost or confused at least once, but that’s okay. Its heart is in the right place, and Leitch’s direction, along with a game cast, make this a safe journey to the end.