Bullet Train hits theaters on Aug. 5, 2022.
David Leitch’s Bullet Train takes itself as seriously as Crank, Smokin’ Aces, or Shoot ‘Em Up; that’s either a recommendation or warning. The John Wick and Atomic Blonde filmmaker translates his brand of electric-magnetic action with all the outlandishness of prime 2000s action flicks. Compared to Netflix’s The Gray Man, it’s a beacon of hope that American action can be both colorful and chaotic — Bullet Train is the movie Chris Evans’ The Gray Man performance deserves, quite frankly. It’s far from bulletproof, and the action-comedy elements don’t always land, but there’s still enough zip and humility that lets the good times roll.
Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapts Kôtarô Isaka’s Japanese novel of the same name with blatant post-Pulp Fiction vibes. Brad Pitt stars as a hitman codenamed “Ladybug” who returns to action for what should be a simple smash-and-snatch objective. This promised ease leads to the film’s humor as Ladybug goes on to face many unforeseen obstacles. Rival assassins punch their tickets, exotic reptiles escape cages, and Ladybug’s convinced his bad luck will never cease as he’s hunted for the package in his grasp. There’s no such thing as a surefire win, which Ladybug learns the hard way as bodies mount and his aversion to firearms becomes a bigger and bigger detriment.
Bullet Train isn’t just Pitt’s comedic shooting range, though. The killer rogue’s gallery under Leitch’s direction sells their quirks from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as fruity-nicknamed Tangerine and Lemon — the latter a Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast, as we’re reminded frequently — to musician Bad Bunny as a vengeful groom known as The Wolf (a moonlight howl accompanies his entrances). Logan Lerman is unrecognizable as a Russian crime boss’ troublemaker son, with a tatted and dangerous Michael Shannon playing White Death, said ruthless crime boss under Japanese-style masks and scraggly silver hairs. Everyone has their schtick — Lemon keeps equating characters to Thomas’ friends, Tangerine’s brass knuckles do his talking, White Death’s only seen slaughtering his enemies in slow-motion flashbacks — and that’s fine. Bullet Train isn’t angling for anything more complicated than warring mercenaries fighting over scores.
Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada bring their martial arts mastery to railroad battlefields, but some might be disappointed to find that the big blow-ups are saved for the finale. That’s not to say Leitch’s action choreography fails prior; it’s just more short-burst, easily editable brawls with actors like Henry and Pitt. Koji single-handedly demolishes adversaries in Cinemax series Warrior, yet is saddled with Joey King’s schoolgirl-sweet Prince here for reasons I’ll leave undefined. There are elements of Bullet Train that fall victim to America’s less fluid and more clunky action, and yet it’s never as egregious as something like — hate to keep harping — The Gray Man, or Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Pitt’s ability to bolster his action sequences with laughs makes all the difference. Ladybug keeps reciting his therapist’s teachings to counter Tangerine’s brash aggression or White Death’s unresolved anger issues, and Pitt’s demeanor doesn’t let the gimmick drown. Henry achieves the same with Lemon’s Thomas the Tank Engine wisdom, as he keeps scouring the bullet train to Kyoto for a “Diesel,” aka the main villain complicating everyone’s tangled missions. There are plenty of cackle-aloud moments, like when sound designers use the perfect *thud* noise when Ladybug hits Tangerine in the noggin with a glass water bottle, even if other gags (like a disagreement Lemon and Tangerine have over their body count) don’t land as well. What’s promised on the tin — bullets and trains — is delivered unfiltered, albeit sometimes too indulgent in the film’s “what goes around comes around” thematic resolutions.
You’re here for the action, and that’s what’s consistent. Pitt’s common strategy involves taking licks until Ladybug emerges victorious thanks to someone else’s poor luck, but even then, he’s portraying nasty physical punishment. The better glimpses are Tangerine and Ladybug pausing their concession-car ruckus so a pleasant vendor (a misused Karen Fukuhara) can offer them drinks or everything that happens after Ladybug and [redacted] reach their final boss battle. Henry and Pitt trade slaps and smacks in stealth during a respectful “Quiet Car” dust-up. Zazie Beetz shines as another agile Ladybug adversary, while a cartoon feline mascot delights as Ladybug’s punching bag. Leitch incorporates prop comedy as fighters integrate their environmental surroundings to ensure throwdowns stay fresh while violence remains at a gory premium — deaths include sliced heads, halved faces, and other bloody spurts that don’t skimp on graphic brutalities. The influence of Japanese yakuza movies is not lost on Leitch, beyond on-screen text fonts and neon brightness like under Tokyo’s night skyline.