On a hot August afternoon in the middle of a movie year when the future of film as an art and a business has never felt more uncertain, a part of me resents having to sit down and write about a movie like Bullet Train. This action comedy from Atomic Blonde director and John Wick co-creator David Leitch arrives to fill a hole I hadn’t been aware existed in the current entertainment landscape: Did anyone call for a quippy, hyperviolent Guy Ritchie knockoff with thinly developed characters and an off-putting note of misanthropy? Were there requests that the cast be stacked with big Hollywood names and studded with smug cameos from their fellow slumming A-Listers, none of them quite given enough interesting things to do or good lines to say? Who ordered an action comedy in which all the women are either revenge-inspiring dead wives or manipulative eyelash-batting schemers?
I suspect Bullet Train’s creators, Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, sold their idea, based on a 2010 novel by Kotaro Isaka, on the strength of the phrase “Brad Pitt as an action hero.” That’s not a full sentence, let alone a pitch, but the casting of Pitt, and the weathered charm and dry humor he intermittently brings to the role despite the dispiriting poverty of his character as written, are the only novelties this wan would-be caper has to offer.
The 58-year-old Pitt is the rare actor of his generation who has never donned a superhero cape, and he has spent precious little time battling gangsters aboard high-speed Japanese locomotives, as is the assignment of his character here, a veteran thief-for-hire known only by his code name, “Ladybug.” Pitt has played his share of hunky leading roles, comic supporting doofuses, angsty suburban fathers, and ambience-establishing stoners, but he has seldom somersaulted through burning wreckage or body-slammed a carful of would-be assassins the way Ladybug does in Bullet Train. At a moment in his career when Pitt seems to be contemplating how to transition to a third act, it is to be hoped he will consider a different means of transportation next time.
The MacGuffin sought by Ladybug in Bullet Train has to be one of the least tantalizing, least imaginative in cinematic memory: a briefcase stuffed with cash and gold bullion, the latter lacking the mysterious glow of its never-fully-seen antecedent in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, another clear stylistic influence (and a movie that felt wildly fresh … 28 years ago). This pedestrian piece of luggage is currently in the care of a pair of feuding hitmen (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who go by the code names Lemon and Tangerine—monikers they squabble over in another wit-free Tarantino lift. In the course of the film, the case will also fall into the hands, or otherwise influence the fates, of a Japanese ex-yakuza and his son (Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji), a British teenager (Joey King) whose pink schoolgirl garb belies an ice-cold criminal mastermind, and a Mexican super-assassin (the Puerto Rican reggaeton superstar Bad Bunny) out to avenge the recent loss of his bride.
The briefcase is nominally the property of a Russian mob boss so dangerous he is known only as the White Death. He is played by an actor whose identity I will keep secret, since, like several other late-breaking star turns in Bullet Train, it seems intended as a surprise. At least, unlike some of his fellow cameo-ers, the White Death gets more than a few lines to say and is incarnated by someone who brings the right energy to his demented role. There are more agents of chaos on this particular crazy train: a deadly snake escaped from a zoo, a Japanese mascot in a puffy pink-and-blue costume that inexplicably patrols the aisles, a severely underused Zazie Beetz popping up three-quarters of the way in as yet another international assassin. Leitch’s intention is to create an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sense of mounting comic mayhem. But the movie’s pace is so hectic, and its body count so high (at one point two characters debate the total number of people they’ve killed in a standoff, and a flashback is necessary to adjudicate), that the prevailing mood is one of sour nihilism—any character could and often does die horribly at any moment, so why waste time finding a protagonist to care about?
I know movies like Bullet Train are not meant to be travel documentaries, but I feel the need to note that, having been lucky enough to take the exact train route depicted in Bullet Train—the high-speed Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto—I can imagine a half-dozen opportunities for both action and comedy scenes better than those in this movie. The sense of quiet decorum and the refined service ethic that prevails on that line (don’t get me started on the exquisite design of the conductors’ uniforms) could have provided a beautifully contrasting backdrop for stylized violence, not to mention the occasion to make an international thriller that actually seems to be taking place somewhere. Instead Bullet Train unfolds only in the airless space between other half-remembered movies. It skirts the problem of Asian stereotyping by featuring hardly any Asian characters (a fact that has led to accusations of whitewashing, though the book’s Japanese author has defended the diverse international casting) and expending minimal time and attention on those it does.
And yet … the idea behind that original pitch, “Brad Pitt as action hero,” is one that still deserves exploration. It’s Pitt’s wry presence, and his playful relationship to his own movie-star persona, that provides a still center amidst the CGI-smeared chaos and keeps this train from (metaphorically at least) going off the rails. In terms of action, Pitt is no Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves—though as fit as a man in his late 50s could hope to be (see: the roof-repair scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), he seems indifferent to the notion of performing, or at least making a show of performing, his own stunts. (Leitch himself served as Pitt’s stunt double for several previous films, starting with Fight Club.) That lack of action-hero bona fides in itself doesn’t constitute a dealbreaker—in fact, Pitt’s relaxed, almost laid-back manner, and his character’s disinclination to carry a firearm or use violence except in self-defense, are what make him the closest thing to a likable main character this coldhearted black comedy can claim. And even with a less-than-stellar script to work with, Pitt is naturally, intuitively funny—he’s an actor whose understated sense of humor has always been his secret weapon. Several times amid the ambient blur of wisecracks and gunfights, there would be a Pitt-centric sight gag, including a scene where he tries to flush the killer snake down a high-tech toilet, that unexpectedly made me laugh aloud. I won’t enumerate these moments, both because I don’t want to spoil the film’s few good jokes and because I can’t really remember them. Three days after I saw it, Bullet Train has erased itself from my mind faster than a zooming Shinkansen. Maybe next time Pitt will get tickets on a more suitable, less sloppily careening, action vehicle.