Bullet Train

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Speaker 1: I tell you my secret. Now I see. Charlotte greatest paper.

Speaker 2: No, I am the.

Speaker 1: What’s in the box. Yo, my God. You’re blowing up. Down you.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Oh. Hello and welcome to another Slate Spoiler special podcast. This week we’re going to be spoiling Bullet Train, the new film from David Leech, action director known from such classics as Sam, can you help me out here? Atomic Blonde, I believe, was a David Leitch movie.

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Speaker 1: Also, John Wick is a sort of stunt coordinator turned director with that movie, so that’s sort of his background.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Right. He got his start as a stuntman. Yes.

Speaker 1: Also, did Hobbs and Shaw, everyone’s least favorite Fast and Furious spinoff.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: So, yeah, he’s known for his action, but not necessarily for his high quality direction. And I think we’re going to find that again here with Bullet Train. I should introduce my interlocutor, Sam Adams. Sam, you are a senior editor at Slate, also a frequent Costco spoiler with me. I was thinking that just a couple shows ago we talked about The Gray Man, a movie that I liked more than you, although we both agreed it was pretty pedestrian stuff. But I think I’m finally going to bring the tone of utter disdain for garbage that you were expecting from me in The Gray Man show to this podcast, because I was just so disappointed and depressed by this movie. Not that I went to, you know, a summer action flick called Bullet Train with huge hopes for cinematic greatness. But this movie just felt so cynical, tired and derivative that it made me sad that it’s something that we have to contemplate in the summer of 2022. Are you with me there?

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Speaker 1: I am. I am actually sort of have the inverse journey of you. I mean, I feel like we’re sort of flip flopping from like 49% to 51%. But as I was writing about The Gray Man, one thing I think about a lot is the part in the movie Idiocracy where it’s in this sort of dystopian future where the world is ruled by idiots. And the number one movie in the country is a movie called Ass, which is just a picture of a person’s ass. Luke Wilson, who is a time traveler from our era. He’s looking at this and he’s disgusted by this. And he’s like, you know, well, you know, in my time, you know, when we made movies, you cared about who’s ass it was and why it was farting. And I was thinking that, you know, a movie like The Gray Man puts me in the position of just being like, Boy, I just wish, like, these action sequences were coherent and the quips were a little bit funny. And I feel like Bullet Train is basically the version of The Gray Man where you know whose ass it is and why it’s farting.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Oh, you see, I have to disagree. I still like The Gray Man. This movie cut to me at the end of the year, putting Gray Man at the top of my top ten movies of the year. I mean, you’re right. It really is 49 versus 51%. So it is kind of a sad quibble to be having. But interestingly, yeah, I found that movie because it was at least followed able to be something I would rather sort of have on in the background while doing my summer tidying than this movie, which just feels like it takes place in an entirely airless universe made up of other movies.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: But let’s get into some of what those other movies are. Did you feel watching Bullet Train that you were in warmed over Guy Ritchie or warmed over Quentin Tarantino? Or is that a distinction worth making at all?

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Speaker 1: It’s a tricky one because so much of Guy Ritchie is already warmed over Quentin Tarantino. I mean, this movie did definitely remind me of and I think we were both old enough to remember the period in sort of the late nineties after the success of Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction, when like every third indie movie was some and generation Xerox of like fast talking, quippy hitmen, doing fun stuff for the murder people. And, you know, Quentin Tarantino outgrew that like 25 years ago, but that is basically what this movie is doing. There are a pair of literally a pair of hitmen on this bullet train named Lemon and Tangerine, played by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, both of whom deserve better at this point. But they, you know, our introduction to them is the two of them like quibbling over how sort of stupid their codenames are, just like in Reservoir Dogs.

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Speaker 1: Brian Tyree Henry, his character, who I believe is Lemann, very important distinction, has this obsession, which he mentions approximately 9000 times with the TV show Thomas the Tank Engine and how all people can be sort of characterized, according to which Thomas character, they recommend that as a running joke is a strong term but a running thing all through the movie. Just like the like a version of monologue in Reservoir Dogs. I mean, it’s just so many generations removed from the thing. But someone actually wrote this down and then it was considered worthy to like, spend all this money and effort on is a little mind boggling to me.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: You know, the amount that was spent on special effects and paying the movie stars versus the amount that was spent on developing an idea in any way. And again, I’m not talking about, you know, bringing it up to Bergmann level here, but for example yeah, that Thomas the Tank engine. Quote unquote joke becomes more than a joke. It kind of turns into the motivating and supposedly moving, you know, central driving trait of the character. LEMMON Who becomes, I would say, maybe the third, second or third most important character in the movie. And nothing more has really been put into creating him than that. He is a squabbling hitman who doesn’t like his name and loves Thomas the Tank engine.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: But we’re really burying the lead here by not talking about the big movie star that this was written for and around, which is Brad Pitt. And I’m wondering whether you agree with me that for some reason, even though there’s plenty of able actors in this movie playing, as we said, poorly written roles, is Brad Pitt the only one who rises above? And can we? I suppose since this is a spoiler special, we can spoil some of the surprise cameos that occur late in the movie. Is there anybody else who redeems the movie with their presence in the way that I think Pitt does?

Speaker 1: I mean, I think Brad Pitt is clearly sort of his latest movie in which he kind of, you know, wears a dumb hat and looks like a dirt bag, but also turns out to be sort of surprisingly good at handling himself physically and murdering people. Yeah. So he is clearly, like, having the most fun in this. One of the things that kicked me up, we’re just going to go all over the place, I think, and not even try to run through the plot, which is both very complicated and deliberately impossible to parse.

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Speaker 1: Yeah, and there’s just a briefcase full of cash, and that just keeps moving from one end of the train to another. And a different person has a hold of it. And there are lots of, you know, flashbacks and cutaways and whatever. But it ultimately is just like people fighting over money and trying to kill each other. There’s a scene at the end of the movie and this is really where it kind of kicked things up for me. It just gets really ridiculous at the end. And I thought, actually, the whole movie had been that ridiculous. I would have liked it a lot more.

Speaker 1: But the Bullet Train, as you know, it’s going to, I think, crashes at the end and the cars go flying all over the place. And Brad Pitt in these sort of intentionally like cheap looking special effects, is just launched into the air and sort of flies like horizontally through these train cars as they are splitting apart into space. His face is kind of, you know, rippling with the shockwaves. And he gets beaned in the head by a flying coffee carafe. And like, I just I laughed at that. I thought that was very sort of funny and goofy. And it does remind you that he is one of the few movie stars of his stature who really just enjoys being a complete goofball and making himself look silly onscreen. And I really like that about him. And when this movie is playing into that, those are the points when, you know, I care about whose ass it is.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Yeah. I mean, that was one of the graphic novel seeming, you know, comic book type moments in the movie that visually at least makes you laugh, right? The sight gag of the coffee can hitting him and the slow motion, which is, you know, sort of aping the heroic slow motion of an action movie, but doing it on a kind of silly level, it all that made me think that it might this must have been based on a graphic novel. In fact, it’s based on a novel novel by a Japanese novelist, Kotaro Isaka, who I believe is himself, you know, doing sort of a big cultural borrowing from American Hitman movies, Hollywood, etc.. So this is all sort of part of some kind of cultural churn that goes from, you know, kill bill to graphic novels to sort of Japanese Yakuza movies and back again.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Another whole big thing to talk about that we don’t even need to get into right now is to what extent it does or doesn’t appreciate, pay homage to and or stereotype the Asian world that it’s sort of part of. But it is so loosely a part of that world and not really trying to be part of it that I personally did not find it that offensive as much as just simply a lost opportunity, you know, a lost opportunity to do some more interesting homage.

Speaker 1: You know, there’s the little details in it. Like, for example, one of the cars on this bullet train is sort of, you know, wrapped in it serves as like a moving advertising vehicle for this one particular anime cartoon that we see referenced numerous times. And there is a sort of big like stuffed mascot, just like kind of running up and down the car and basically annoying people kind of getting in their way as they’re trying to get the money and were stabbed someone. And then, of course, we find out eventually that this mascot is actually populated by another assassin, played by Zazie Beetz, who has just been biding her time this whole time. I’ve not been on a bullet train in Japan and it’s possible, you know, that is based on something real. But you’re going to learn anything about Japan or even bullet trains in this movie, except that they go real fast.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: I actually have been on this exact train, this exact route, super high speed train in Japan that goes from Tokyo to Kyoto is kind of a common tourist route right between those two cities. And you cross the entire country in less time than it takes this movie to unfurl on the screen. And that in itself, obviously, this is not intended. To have verisimilitude and to be a travel documentary. I’m aware of that. But there were so many opportunities. All I could think of as somebody who had had a very memorable ride on the Shinkansen is that there were so many missed opportunities for both action and comedy and just set design and, you know, sort of the view out the window and all of these things about the ride that would have anchored the movie in a real place in time and, you know, made it just funnier and tighter that were completely thrown away.

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Speaker 1: Right. Just a lot of possibilities for complications. I mean, the only reason it matters that this is on a train in the first place is, I guess, you know, one of the movies in Japan to like the characters usually can’t go anywhere, so they’re sort of stuck in this tube going back and forth. And there’s something, you know, very cinematic about kind of trains. An action movie is going all the way back to their inception and Buster Keaton’s The General. Just to pick a random example.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Yeah, I mean, I couldn’t help thinking of that. One of the Great Train Chase movies of all time and just so many other wonderful action scenes and dramas. You know, The Lady Vanishes, you know, that have taken place in that contained space of a train and how infrequently this movie took advantage of that.

Speaker 1: It matters that, like, the train regularly stops for one minute. And, you know, those are a bunch of sort of rest points in the movie where a character has to kind of get off and show somebody that they have the case that in fact, they don’t have and, you know, fake it until they make it. And there seem to be a lot more possibilities. And the movie takes advantage of.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Even if the physics of the train made a consistent sense, you know, amongst themselves. I mean, it doesn’t all have to be things that are really physically possible. But for example, the idea that people could sort of fall out of the train and just hang off of it when it’s going however fast those trains go 250 miles an hour or something like that. There was just a sense that there were no real stakes because. Well, I mean, speaking of not having stakes.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: All right, let’s spoil it. This is a spoiler special and we’re chaotically skipping around in this chaotic movie. I really did not like the fake Juliet death of the Brian Tyree Henry character. I mean, that was a real mean trick to pull on the audience. I mean, as I said, he’s supposed to be one of the few characters that we care about at all in what is a pretty nihilistic movie, right? Where life doesn’t have a lot of value, very high body count. Anybody could die at any time. And a lot is made of the fact that this somewhat major character, whose backstory we know at least a little bit and care about, supposedly has been shot right by another major character, the major character, Brad Pitt.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: And and then it all turns out to be a fake out. And he wasn’t really dead the whole time. And he had just, you know, drunk the water bottle, which we haven’t gotten into with the sleeping potion in it and merely appeared to be dead, which was not established beforehand, that I remember that he’s got a bulletproof vest on and that just felt like a moment, especially as late in the movie as it happened. And the fact that his partner does legitimately die and it’s not a fake out, I don’t know. It was just a moment where I got angry at this movie’s kind of impossible physics and the way anything could happen at any moment and disengaged from even trying to care about the few characters I had been trying to care about.

Speaker 1: Right. And it’s the sort of old like, oh, no, actually, she shot him in the chest, but he was wearing a bulletproof vest. I mean, it’s just sort of like the laziest fake out can possibly do in this movie. So it keeps giving you these, you know, quote unquote twists where things are not quite as you see them, but they tend to be they’re just generally very predictable in stock. And even the fact that it turns out, like all the people around this who seem to be randomly on this train, going after the same things are actually there for a reason. And they’ve all been lured there by this sort of legendary, dare I say, Kaiser. So a like gangster called the White Death, who we eventually find out is played by Michael Shannon giving a completely ridiculous performance. That, again, is the kind of ridiculousness I think this movie needed way more of. But, you know, all these things are sort of like, oh, I guess that’s the thing now. But none of them are actually surprising or interesting. They’re just a way to sort of throw more things into the pot and hope we don’t notice that nothing is actually happening.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: I mean, really, this all points to, you know, my outrage at Brian Tyree Henry coming back to life and, you know, all of these cameos that we just started to to scratch the surface of which have happened late in the movie. And I think, you know, count on the audience being a lot happier to see most of these actors than we actually are all kind of point to the same thing, which is this is a movie in search of a protagonist or a reason to care. You know, and this is a hard thing for black comedy to balance. I think there is such a thing as as great black comedy, but it’s rare and it requires a mastery of tone that this movie is nowhere near having. And as a result, your mind your mind as a viewer is constantly casting around for some place to kind of sink your hooks into.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: I mean, Brad Pitt is the closest thing we have because he’s Brad Pitt. He’s the protagonist of the movie. But do we really know anything about Ladybug? There’s a code name for the character that he plays. I mean, he’s a guy who’s a professional criminal, but not a killer. Right. I guess this is supposed to distinguish him from all the other assassins on the train. He’s just this kind of smash and grab thief guy. He seems to be on a one last job kind of situation or coming back from some sort of burnout. But we don’t learn anything about his backstory at all. He has a relationship with his handler, who we hear only on audio throughout most of the movie. She’s played by Sandra Bullock, and she’s kind of in an earpiece telling him what to do next. But again, that’s a relationship that isn’t really developed or understood. So we just really kind of grab onto him because he’s the closest thing to a still center of the chaos. But a movie without a protagonist that’s going to have this dark of a worldview just really has a long way to go to win over the viewer’s heart.

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Speaker 1: And the fact that like this sort of the, you know, core couple who we sort of are happy to see reunited at the end is Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock, also known as sort of Danny Ocean’s sister and his right hand man. The fact that, like, you know, Channing Tatum, the star of Magic Mike, makes one of those sort of like, hey, it’s that guy cameos in this version is like, oh, I can’t believe they got him in for two shots. That’s pretty funny. Really points to me that this is all trying to do movies in sort of the vein of Magic Mike or Ocean’s 11, which are basically just like movie stars having fun, that sort of subgenre, which can be really great. But when like you’re not actually having the same amount of fun, you just feel like you’re watching something, you know? It’s like being at a party where you don’t know anybody. Like you’re just kind of standing off to the side feeling progressively more alienated and not into it. And, you know, and certification laugh and whatever. But it just doesn’t have that infectiousness that it really needs to keep you going through.

Speaker 1: What, as you point out then, is actually like at its best, like a pretty sort of nihilistic story in which basically everyone gets killed at the end. Many, many people get killed in the various flashbacks that set up the characters. That’s when we’re meeting Lemon and Tangerine. The first I think maybe the first flashback in the movie is the two of them arguing over how many people they murdered during a particular recent job and, you know, whether it’s 16 or 17. And then it turns out that Brian Tyree Henry character sort of neglected to even like take into account the death of a civilian who was accidentally blown up by a car that they shot and flipped over. It’s a really high body count in this movie, which I don’t really care about in something that’s like, it’s not a movie. You were supposed to take that seriously, but you know, we’re not going to take that seriously. We need to be invested in like something else, even like just getting to the next fight scene or the next joke. Don’t even really feel that pole, let alone caring about the characters or any of that old fashioned stuff.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Totally agree. That was the moment that the movie started to lose me, although it still could have won me back by providing some characters to care about. But that moment where the two hitmen are debating how many people they killed in a recent round of of killings for their mob boss. And then a flashback has to adjudicate the dispute. Just felt to me like a really a really clammy kind of moral moment of the movie.

Speaker 1: And it’s all done to this really sort of syrupy, like jokey Engelbert Humperdinck song, which is so kind of winky winky in a way that this movie indulges, like, way too much.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Oh, I thank you for reminding me about the musical part. Yes, that song is I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, which we hear in a few different versions, including, I think maybe a Japanese language version. And there’s some other pop songs that we hear in Japanese, and that is just one of the oldest, oldest tricks in the book. And at this point just needs to have so much justification, right? Which is the ironic, sappy song played under a violent scene, which is something I guess originally borrowed from Scorsese. He write. I mean, his songs aren’t exactly ironic, but yeah, he has a way of juxtaposing pop and murder in a way that that works. But at this point, did you just keep on quoting a quote of a quote of a quote of that just feels so borrowed and so cynical that I’m kind of surprised that it could make it out of, I don’t know, a writers room discussion or a final editing session, you know, that there wasn’t a loved one along the way somewhere telling David Leitch, hey, you know, this has been done a few dozen times, Sam, I’m going to stop you for just a minute for a word from Slate.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Plus, Slate’s membership program. If you enjoy Slate spoiler specials, the best way to support this show is by joining Slate Plus, which is Slate’s membership program. When you were a Slate Plus member, you get no ads on any Slate podcast. You get unlimited reading throughout the Slate website. That’s access to every article and advice, column and podcast we publish. We’ll never hit a paywall. When you’re a Slate Plus member and you get bonus segments or bonus episodes on some shows, including Slow Burn, the Political Gabfest and my other recurring show on Slate, The Culture Gabfest. Best of all, when you were a Slate Plus member, you are supporting our podcast. This show and this site would not be possible without your support. And Slate Plus helps keep it all going to join today go to slate.com slash spoiler plus once again that Slate.com slash spoiler plus.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: All right, Sam. Back to our conversation. If you had told me that a former stuntman who helped create John Wick and the stunts in John Wick. You know, I may not be a huge fan of Atomic Blonde. I haven’t seen the Deadpool movies, which he directed the second one of. But if you had told me the person with that kind of movie Pedigree was making a Brad Pitt movie, I would have had much higher expectations for the action scenes. I’m not a huge action connoisseur. And, you know, I know that Brad Pitt is not a Tom Cruise or a Keanu Reeves who was part stuntman and, you know, very insistent about training really hard and at least appearing to do and doing parts of his own stunts. And that’s all fine. But I found the action to be really hard to follow and not particularly beautifully choreographed, not as we said, taking advantage of the specific spatial limitations of being inside a train, car, etc..

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: And yeah, just in general, didn’t didn’t feel that Brad Pitt either believed in or cared about appearing to be a stunt guy, even though he obviously is extremely fit. And, you know, maybe he trained for the movie. But yeah, if you’re going to this movie to see Brad Pitt transform into some kind of, you know, Yakuza fighting machine or something, you will definitely be disappointed.

Speaker 1: I mean, I like them better than you did in it, but I certainly don’t think they’re on the level of either John Wick or Atomic Blonde. It’s a lot of like pretty fast cuts and just people, you know, throwing punches and knives and guns that gets, you know, sort of solidly choreographed and enjoyable, like on that level. But there’s definitely no kind of stand out scene where you feel like you have to go see this movie just to see like this one moment. I don’t I don’t think there’s anything that lifts out in.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: That Sam the last thing I’ll ask you so that we don’t limped to such a sad conclusion and we end on some note of hope, is is it out of the question that Brad Pitt could do a good action movie? I mean, if you sat down in this movie thinking like Brad Pitt does John Wick, I’d watch that. Would you still watch that? And how do you think it should be different in order to work?

Speaker 1: Yeah, I mean, I think absolutely in some ways. I mean, we sort of got that with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. You know, he’s playing a stuntman in that movie and, you know, has a big sort of vengeance moment at the end of it. So, I mean, I think he still has like a really sort of compelling, like lanky physicality. He can use it in ways that are very, you know, funny and very threatening. I think, you know, a movie that let him do both of those things, but with a little bit more of a movie could be very satisfying. So if he wants to take another crack at this thing, I certainly would not hold it against him.

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Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: We may have left out some parts of this careening train, but I think we accurately conveyed her negative feelings about it. And I hope that you are not so crushed in spirit that you won’t come back to spoil another movie with me soon. Hopefully a better one.

Speaker 1: Love to.

Dana Stevens, Forever Blowing: Thanks to all of you for tuning in for another Slate spoiler special. Our producer today was Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola, the vice president of slate audio is Lisa montgomery for Sam Adams. I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll talk to you again soon.