Whenever a major action movie shakes up the formula and becomes a major hit with audiences, it will suddenly become the touchstone for a whole new generation of movies just like it. That was certainly the case after Die Hard (1988) unexpectedly shook up the industry upon it’s release. Suddenly, the studios were looking for the next Die Hard, and it often led to a lot of sub-par copycats. Then in the mid-90’s, the movies of Quentin Tarantino began to shake up the action genre in their own way. Now there were a lot of action movies where the heroes were speaking with quippy dialogue and making pop culture references. But, through them all, most of those movies couldn’t match either Die Hard‘s perfect pacing or Tarantino’s sharp wit. Mostly, the action genre is about peaks and valleys. There are icons that rise up and stand strong, but they are surrounded by a lot of junk that falls flat and becomes forgotten to the ages. And there really hasn’t been much change to that cycle. The only thing that has really changed is that action movies more or less are now dominated by comic book adaptations and sequels. There are original ideas making their way into action films today, but they are often either outside of the Hollywood system (mainly in the foreign market) or they are the passion project of a famous movie star or film director. One particular action film that brought some fresh new life into the genre was John Wick (2014) starring Keanu Reeves. John Wick brought back an emphasis on choreographed stunt work into a genre that had long been diminished by fast editing and CGI. The John Wick series is all about in camera stunt work and long takes, stripping the genre down to it’s fundamentals and having fun with them. Naturally, this too has led to a proliferation recently of action movies in that same Wick style, which is not all together a bad thing. If a movie is going to inspire a bunch of copycats, at least it should inspire the kinds that are grounded in reality like it is.
One of the men behind the success of John Wick is director David Leitch. Leitch had been a long time stunt man in Hollywood before getting behind the camera. Among performing and coordinating stunts in films as varied as Fight Club (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), he also worked on the incredibly complex stunts involved in the Matrix trilogy. That’s where he met and bonded with Keanu Reeves. Leitch would continue to work with Reeve on many other films like Constantine (2005), but all the while the two were collaborating on a dream project that appealed to their collective creative tastes. That film eventually became John Wick and it not only helped to revitalize Keanu’s film career, but it also began Leitch’s second career as a movie director and producer. He was uncredited for his work on John Wick (Chad Stahelski had the sole credit even though it was a shared position between the two), but his follow-up really demonstrated his talent for putting his actors right in the thick of the action. He cemented Charlize Theron as an action star with Atomic Blonde (2017), which again involved another actor performing a lot of her own stunts for authenticity. Afterwards, David did a couple of franchise jobs, jumping aboard Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019). Now he finds himself back making another original action film, this time collaborating with another actor whom he once performed as the stunt double for: Brad Pitt. Their new film Bullet Train takes the Leitch style of stunt heavy action and sets it within the titular high speed location. The question that remains is, does Bullet Train live up to the standard that a filmmaker of David Leitch’s career has set for him, or does it quickly come off the rails.
In present day Tokyo, we meet a small time assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) as he is assigned to steal a case full of ransom money from another bunch of assassins working for a rival player in the criminal underworld. Ladybug, who is renowned for his bad luck, follows the case full of money to a bullet train bound for Kyoto. On board, he runs into a pair of assassins known as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are delivering the case to their boss, a Russian criminal overlord named the White Death (Michael Shannon), along with his delinquent son (Logan Lerman). At first, Ladybug manages to snatch the case away undetected, but he soon learns that there are many other high profile assassins on board the same train. He first runs into The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny) a Columbian hitman who seeks revenge against Ladybug, though Ladybug barely remembers what the transgression was in the first place. There is also a young British girl named Prince (Joey King) who also turns out to be a trained assassin while sneakily posing as an innocent bystander. She herself has another job to perform on the train, which is to hold the man who originally brought the case on board the train, Kimura (Andrew Koji). Kimura’s father, a crime boss known as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), is a rival of the White Death, and Prince’s motives involve stirring up this rivalry between the two. In addition, another assassin named the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is taking out additional targets on the train with her own specialty; injecting victims with the venom of a highly toxic snake. Ladybug quickly finds himself in over his head and continually complains about his situation to his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) over the phone. What was suppose to be a simple snatch and go has now devolved into a full blown gang war on this high speed train. What follows is a crazy string of events that involves the briefcase full of money itself, a venomous snake let loose on the train, as well as a bottle of water with it’s own journey to take. The only question that remains is who will be left standing once the train reaches the end of the line.
Needless to say, the plot to Bullet Train is a complicated one. It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie ends up being pretty divisive for critics and audiences. One’s response to this movie will probably hinge on the viewer’s tolerance level for quirky dialogue and plot contrivances. And for someone like me, I found that my tolerance is pretty high. Overall, I found Bullet Train to be a generally fun ride of a movie. Sure, it’s a bit of a mess that screams indulgence on the part of the director, but it’s never dull and left me having a good time. I’d say where the movie may be a problem for many is that the movie has wild swings in tone. For the most part, it does have an over the top quirkiness that works in it’s favor, but the movie also has moments that are meant to tug at the heartstrings or feel terrifying when the stakes are raised. At some points, it doesn’t really capture those other kinds of moments as well as it does the more humorous parts. There’s a tragic backstory given late in the film that is emotionally wrenching, but a second later it gets undercut by a quippy remark delivered by either Brad Pitt or another star. It’s hard at times to know exactly which kind of tone David Leitch is trying to land on, and it leaves parts of the movie uneven. But, at the same time, when the movie wants to be clever and give us an unexpected surprise, it usually generally works. There are some really clever twists on the trope of establishing a long tragic backstory for some of the characters, and even for just an object sometimes. In those moments, the movie does manage to turn the genre on it’s head a bit, and have some fun with what we are expecting the story to go. And I’ll give the movie this credit, it keeps things moving along, like the titular train itself, and part of the entertainment value was in seeing how all the new complications build up to take the story into avenues that you don’t see coming.
There is a John Wick aspect to the way that the movie is filmed, with stunt work taking precedent over every other effect. The movie offers up some pretty clever moments, like a fight between Pitt and Taylor-Johnson’s characters in the train’s snack cart station. The way that the motion of the train is used, particularly with it’s speed is also a strong component of the action scenes, including some of the harrowing moments when the characters are on the outside of the train, which can reach speeds of over 200 mph. There are moments though when CGI does have to be used, and thankfully they are at the points where the movie intentionally goes cartoonish. It’s at the points where the characters must do battle in close up combat that you see the work put into the choreography of the scene. And, like Leitch’s other films, they try to use as much of as they can with the name actors. It helps that when the movie does try to freshen things up with the action sequences, they use the train itself and different parts of it to make each scene unique. Another good example of this is when Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry get involved in a fight in the train’s Quiet Car. At that point, the fight is about hurting the other opponent without you or them making a sound, and this helps to make it a humorous while also brutal action sequence. The diversity of the fight scenes help to make the 2 hour runtime not feel burdensome, because apart from them, the story itself is fairly flimsy. It’s mainly about following each scene up with what had happened before, and not much else. There aren’t any deep character evolving scenes, though characterizations do remain strong. The plot is essentially just there to stitch it altogether in the end.
One thing that is impressive about this movie is the pretty solid cast that’s been brought together. The movie is especially serviced well by a very funny and charming lead performance by Brad Pitt. What I especially like about Pitt’s performance in this movie as Ladybug is that he creates a character who’s not exactly great at his job. A John Wick this character ain’t, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t prove himself to be heroic by the end. I like the fact that Ladybug is just a lower level assassin caught up in something that is far outside his level of expertise, and that part of his finding his way out of a predicament is just a result of dumb luck. Pitt brings a nice folksy relatability to the character, and he is delightfully oblivious to the heavy drama that the other characters bring into the story. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a lot of extra humor to the movie, as well as some surprisingly sincere dramatic moments. Their characters, Tangerine and Lemon are comically referred to as “The Twins,” despite the glaring differences in skin color and physique. Their working class London East-ender accents are also a fun aspect of their personalities. I also found the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder to be very effective, especially given that he’s the only character in the story that brings about some dramatic gravitas. He’s also pretty remarkable with a sword in the movie. The film’s one weak spot in the cast sadly is Michael Shannon as the villainous White Death. Shannon is great actor, and he does leave an impression in this movie, but the character shows up very late in the movie and has such little time to define his presence, perhaps robbing the character a bit of his menace during the closing of parts of this movie. I also should give a special note of praise to Sandra Bullock for her mostly vocal performance here. I like how her line reading perfectly balances off of Brad Pitt’s in-over-his-head novice. In some ways she plays it as part high stakes supervisor par psychiatrists, helping Pitt’s Ladybug work through his insecurities during the job.
One of the most important characters in the movie though just happens to be the train itself. The majority of the film takes place aboard this one train, and the movie does a great job of helping situate the viewer into understanding the geography of this one train. Each car features it’s own defining features, which in turn give character to the different action set pieces that happen within them. There’s the aforementioned Quiet Car, the dining car, the bar car, as well as one car that is meant for kids complete with it’s own mascot character walking around. The plot of the movie involves the characters moving back and forth across the trains cars, often either bumping into one another or chasing each other down. The movie does a good job of allowing each new location to be defined before letting the characters start wrecking havoc inside them. There’s some especially wild moments that involve the mascot character getting in the way. Even while the movie does take place in a singular location, the film crew did a fantastic job with making the viewer feel like they are aboard that same train. cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who’s worked with David Leitch on all of his past movies, paints every scene in these vibrant colors, befitting the neon glow of modern day Japan. It’s probably safe to say that not one scene in this movie was filmed on a real train in the vicinity of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. Instead, it was all film in front of blue screens in stages across Hollywood. The fact that we the viewers still are able to imagine the train as being real and the environment outside the windows shows just how well the production and post-production teams were able to bring this setting to life. If you’re going to name your movie after the setting where the majority of the story takes place, the filmmakers better make sure that it looks great on screen, and that indeed seems to be the case here.
It’s overall not David Leitch’s strongest work, but still, there is a lot of entertainment value to be had. It’s one of those turn your brain off movies where you just go along for the ride. The characters are fairly simple, but at times the actors bring out some surprising depth to the roles they are playing. Brad Pitt is especially enjoyable in this movie, with a character exhausted from all the bad fortune that has fallen his way and yet still manages to find a way out of a predicament. I imagine that for most involved here, the movie is just a fun bit of exercise, allowing them to make something crowd-pleasing without overextending itself in order to be profound. It’s pure popcorn cinema, and indeed a good example of this movie being done right. Given how so many action movies end up feeling like copycats of something else, it’s just pleasing to see a movie that wears it’s uniqueness proudly. The script can get a little overly indulgent, but Leitch’s direction is solid and inventive. It will be interesting to see if his career continues to centered around making movies on this scale with an original idea or gimmick around them. Is he going to continue on as a director for hire for most of his time in Hollywood, sticking mostly to movies guaranteed to have positive box office. Perhaps making those corporate financed movies every now and then is what helps to finance the riskier movies that he wants to make more of. Hopefully, the personal movies that he wants to put out into the world are worth it. Bullet Train, like I stated before, offers up the bare minimum that summer blockbusters require but at the same time has a bit more interesting quirks to it that help to make it unique and much less of a copycat of other hit action movies Hop aboard this train, preferably on a nice big screen, and just check your cynicism at the door and indulge yourself in a slight but still satisfying summertime action flick.