When John Wick’s co-director boards a film about a high-speed train packed with assassins, certain things are expected. Bullet-spraying brawls? Check. Creatively choreographed set-pieces, shot with precision and clarity? Check. A charismatic A-lister’s action comeback? Check. But if Bullet Train’s set-up sounds like ‘John Wick on rails’, David Leitch’s latest surprisingly isn’t that movie — instead, it continues his post-Wick trajectory into bigger, splashier, more cartoonish territory.
Following Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Leitch’s tongue remains lodged firmly in his cheek for a screwball summer movie with samurai swords and psycho killers — an ultraviolent farce. Like its transportation namesake, Bullet Train is fast, slick, and shiny — but this is less intent on going directly from A to B than it is looping back around on itself in knots of coincidences and contrivances, as a cavalcade of contract killers clash in the carriages. Think Kill Bill Vol. 1 filtered through early Guy Ritchie, both for better and worse.
Style over substance feels like the whole point here, but Bullet Train only ever operates on a surface level.
Locked neatly into that loose, aloof rhythm is Brad Pitt as ‘Ladybug’, a hired gun attempting to practice mindfulness while (ah-ah-ah-ah) stayin’ alive (the film opens with a Japanese-language cover of that very Bee Gees song). But his seemingly simple job — hop on board, grab a silver briefcase, hop off — is not so straightforward, and he’s soon beset by other hit-people with their own overlapping agendas. Among them, Cockney duo Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry, his accent veering between stellar and shaky) and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, supremely enjoyable), whose bickering conveys a genuine brotherhood; Joey King’s The Prince, who uses her youthful appearance as a weapon (among other actual weapons); Bad Bunny’s The Wolf, desperate for vengeance; and Andrew Koji’s Yuichi, forced into action when his son’s life is threatened. Bullet Train’s primary focus is setting them on criss-crossing tracks, flashing backwards and forwards to tell the story of their interlinked grievances as the bodies pile high.
The results are frequently fun, especially whenever Pitt is on screen – blow-drying his hair with a tricked-out Japanese toilet, repeating his therapy mantras (“Hurt people hurt people”), and silently scuffling with Lemon in the quiet carriage. His chemistry, too, with Sandra Bullock’s largely-offscreen handler is charming.
What it isn’t, in any way, is deep. Style over substance feels like the whole point here (and the style itself is substantial), but Bullet Train only ever operates on a surface level — the screenplay’s explorations of surrendering to fate versus attempting to seize control feel shallow at best. Plus, its appropriation of Japanese culture feels uncomfortably tokenistic, revelling in East Asian iconography while presenting a sprawling cast of largely non-Asian actors, wasting Karen Fukuhara and Masi Oka in bit-parts, and sidelining legends like Hiroyuki Sanada (stuck speaking in ‘Wise Old Man’ tropes when he does enter the film).
Expect a ride and nothing more, though, and Bullet Train largely delivers — its excesses sometimes smug (an Engelbert Humperdinck murder-montage is overplayed), sometimes sublime (a bottle of water and a venomous snake get their own intro-montages). Worth a one-way ticket, if not a return journey.