[FULL SPOILERS for Bullet Train]
“Sometimes you’ve got to shoot first and come up with questions later.”
You’re a massive Hollywood actor, acting in a film about a bullet train bound for Kyoto, and you play a former assassin assigned to retrieve a briefcase from the train. After an exhausting series of misadventures, your character has arrived in Kyoto with the briefcase in hand. Another criminal, played by your co-star, stops you. She is feigning having her bag stuck, and with great exasperation your character reenters the bullet train for the umpteenth time. If you are Brad Pitt, this was you roughly a year ago, filming an action-packed comedy aptly titled Bullet Train. Bullet Train follows Pitt’s character, ironically code named Ladybug due to his frequent and comical misfortunes, as he discovers the vast criminal underworld affiliated with this briefcase. Bullet Train opened to a respectable if fairly disappointing 30 million dollar opening, and maintains a mediocre 49 on the critical aggregation site Metacritic. I’m inclined to posit that the film is a bit better than the widespread response lets on.
Starting off with some less flattering aspects, Bullet Train has one of the most surprisingly intricate plots of the year, involving nearly a dozen primary antagonists, all tangentially interconnected in a web of “he said, she did.” One assassin, The Wolf, had a wife who was poisoned at a wedding by The Hornet (another assassin) also attended by Ladybug, with The Wolf mistaking Ladybug for his wife’s killer and attempting to kill him while The Hornet poisons the son of the White Death, tasked to be retrieved by Tangerine and Lemon, who are the keepers of the briefcase Ladybug is supposed to retrieve. If you’re at all confused, don’t be. They explain these narrative antics a total of once, and as long as your memory proves to be eidetic, there is absolutely no bewilderment to fear. Though a complex plot would normally improve a film’s quality in my eyes, Bullet Train‘s plot is too convoluted to enhance its characters, theme, or tone. While well-intentioned, the intricacy of Bullet Train drags the film down by preoccupying the viewer with connecting the dots when they should just be enjoying the ride.
Furthermore, this ride is doubtlessly one intended for maximum enjoyment. Moving past the plot, one discovers an ensemble packed with memorable characters played by thoroughly talented actors, in addition to a notable directorial style. There is an enjoyable self-awareness, almost meta quality to Bullet Train, in which director David Leitch (John Wick, Deadpool 2) understands that his content is art to be consumed rather than experienced. The characters have no names and instead get goofy subtitles such as “The Elder;” the dialogue knows no realistic bounds and instead has the appearance of clear yet hilarious fabrication. Rather than breaking the fourth wall, Leitch makes it translucent, broadcasting to the viewer that Bullet Train is first and foremost a movie, a piece of entertainment – even if the convoluted story presents a roadblock to that relaxing, entertaining quality.
As for the aforementioned ensemble, it is indeed fantastic. Brad Pitt oozes charisma out of his pores, playing a character trying to overcome his past mistakes and become better. This model is, of course, incredibly cliché, but Pitt and Leitch transform Ladybug into a comical parody of himself that works tremendously well. Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as contract killer brothers Tangerine and Lemon are without a doubt the two most memorable characters in Bullet Train. Supposedly, the pair ad-libbed much of their lines together, and it shines through, the comedy standing out as especially witty and full of personality. The ongoing bit regarding Lemon’s interest in Thomas the Tank Engine (a British children’s show) – “everything I’ve learned about people, I’ve learned from Thomas” – was of special hilarity for me. Joey King’s character of Prince, a girl with an innocent facade that hides a psychotic disposition, and the extravagant White Death, played by Michael Shannon, are also of note. These five, and several more, have abundant chemistry that provide the key ingredient to Bullet Train.
I’d give Bullet Train a score of 3 stars; a fun adventure with a charismatic ensemble that was unfortunately dragged down by a convoluted plot.