In Bullet Train, the latest absurd action spectacle from Atomic Blonde and Hobbs & Shaw director David Leitch, Brian Tyree Henry plays an assassin with the codename Lemon, who is partnered with his “twin brother” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Almost as a point of pride, Lemon states that everything he learned came from watching Thomas the Tank Engine, going so far as to compare everyone he meets to various characters from the show, and even keeping a sticker book of characters to illustrate his point. In the middle of the insanity that is Bullet Train, Lemon mentions that Thomas says “simple is always better,” almost as if writer Zak Olkewicz (adapting the novel “Maria Beetle” from Kôtarô Isaka) is poking fun at how convoluted and wild this film is going to get. While Thomas might be right most of the time, it’s the ridiculousness and twisty nature of Bullet Train that makes this film such a wild ride.
In Bullet Train, Brad Pitt plays Ladybug, an assassin coming back to the job, despite being worried about his bad luck. His handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) assigns Ladybug with collecting a briefcase from a bullet train going from Tokyo to Kyoto. Of course, Ladybug’s return mission isn’t as easy as it sounds, as the train is packed with other assassins, each with their own missions and targets. Lemon and Tangerine are trying to take the aforementioned suitcase to the organized crime leader The White Death (Michael Shannon), while trying to protect his son, known only as The Son (Logan Lerman). Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) is trying to find The Prince (Joey King), the assassin who pushed his young son off a building. There are also a handful of other assassins, a killer snake, a walkaround character from a popular anime, and a Fiji water bottle that ends up becoming integral to the events on this train.
Bullet Train often feels like a culmination of Leitch’s past work, as the film is packed with short and blunt action scenes like in John Wick and Atomic Blonde, but thrown into a narrative that is about as silly as Hobbs & Shaw, and with the humor, cameos, and sly nods of something like Deadpool 2 (whereas the comedy here is probably the weakest aspect). But beyond its overly labyrinthian plot, Bullet Train is repetitive and often dumb, but it relishes in the sort of caveman-brain enjoyment that one gets from an action film like this. If anything, Bullet Train is just a slight step up from the celebrity-as-assassins-packed ludicrousness of Smokin’ Aces.
But Bullet Train relies wholly on its cast, and thankfully, this one is having a ball on this crazy train. The majority of the action sequences here feature Pitt, and it’s great to watch him on this level of action film again, effectively pulling off the fast and straightforward fight sequences of a Leitch film. Yet it’s the combination of Taylor-Johnson and Lemon as Tangerine and Lemon that is the real joy of Bullet Train. The chemistry between these two is a joy, whether they’re killing their way through flashbacks, or trying to deceive The White Death in order to stay alive.
Unfortunately, the weakest narrative threads in Bullet Train center on The White Death—who becomes more important to this story as it progresses. At first, King and Koji’s scenes seem the most tied to The White Death, and compared to the other stories going on in other compartments, their story slows down the film’s forward momentum. It’s a shame, since The White Death is key to this entire story, and Shannon is having a ball with this larger-than-life character, especially when faced against Hiroyuki Sanada’s The Elder, but when Bullet Train starts to explore the larger meaning of everything, that’s when it starts to go off the rails.
At its best though, Bullet Train is a game cast having a ball with this lunacy, in a film that is always barely skating by on the right side of stupid. Bullet Train is trying to make this story a more involved narrative about fate and luck that feels the need to tie everyone together with a bow, but really, it’s at its best when it’s just a bunch of celebrities attempting to kill each other and having fun little conversations in between. It’s not a terrible idea, combining all these assassins into one tangled story, but when it comes at the cost of stopping the film several times to give the audience an info dump, it becomes easy to understand Thomas the Tank Engine’s viewpoint on simplicity.
But still, it’s that grandiose, over-blown nature that also makes Bullet Train so much fun, a two-hour invitation to turn off your brain and watch Brad Pitt try to kill half the cast of Atlanta, while a samurai Michael Shannon waits for the delivery of his suitcase full of cash. Bullet Train is a film that knows how preposterous it can get and revels in that silliness. This is a film that has an origin story for a Fiji water bottle, and again, did I mention samurai Michael Shannon? Bullet Train is knowingly absurd and has plenty of fun with the wild lengths it can go, and for the most part, that keeps Bullet Train on the rails.
Bullet Train comes to theaters on August 5.