So many things came to mind while watching “Bullet Train”: High-speed trains sound awesome; why don’t we have any in the US? Will I ever see Mount Fuji? I wonder what flavors of Kit Kats they sell on this train?
These thoughts occurred because my brain refused to engage in this flippant, terminally self-satisfied blood and bullet extravaganza, one that feels like it was pulled from what we might call the “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” period of American cinema, when Quentin Tarantino’s first two feature films emboldened far too many young filmmakers to think they too could do high-energy comedy with excessive gunplay , explicit gore, pop culture references, needle drops and a briefcase full of cash.
Having scheduled a film festival from 1995 to 1999, I was subjected to more bad “Reservoir Dogs” wannabes than the average viewer, which might explain why this new film put me off early and never won me back. . “Bullet Train” leaves virtually no cliches of this subgenre unexplored, from swoopy, self-aware camera moves to a gunfight marked by an innocuous single from the past. (“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” gets the honors here.)
Brad Pitt — who, like just about every actor involved, is better than that — stars as a snatch and grab man named Ladybug. (Oh yeah, they do the little nickname here, too.) Ladybug is tasked by her master (voiced by Sandra Bullock) to hop on the bullet train in Tokyo, steal a particular briefcase, and then get off at the next stop. But it can’t be that simple, otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.
The train happens to be host to a worldwide gallery of rogue assassins, including: Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of killers known incongruously as ” The Twins”, who are the stewards of the briefcase. and the until recently kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of infamous crime boss The White Death; The Prince (Joey King), whose schoolgirl reality belies his murderous intentions; The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny), a Bolivian gangster on a quest for revenge; Kimura (Andrew Koji, “Warrior”), whose son’s life hangs in the balance; and a few other players to be revealed later.
There’s also a deadly, poisonous snake on board, but it becomes one of the many details that screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (“Fear Street: Part Two – 1978”), adapting Kôtarô Isaka’s book, seems to forget for a long time. periods of the film, similarly he writes an explanation of what happens to the other passengers but never explains the disappearance of the train crew.
A violent, fast-paced caper about a group of attractive crooks trying to outsmart and/or shoot each other promises to be fun and thrilling, but in the hands of director David Leitch (“Deadpool 2”), it’s a matter without air. It’s clear in the first 20 minutes that this movie operates in such a vacuum of smug artificiality that nothing that happens can matter. And rather than leaning into next-level snarkiness, “Bullet Train” builds to a place where, as the bodies start to pile up, we’re suddenly supposed to care about at least some of these characters and their relationships with each other.
This talented cast is reduced to playing people’s ideas, often with a single defining characteristic that they play over and over again. (Ladybug likes to repeat his therapist’s self-help aphorisms when he’s not hitting people, while Lemon categorizes everyone he meets by “Thomas the Tank Engine” characters.)
Cinematographer Jonathan Sela (“The Lost City”) provides all the necessary loops – it’s the kind of film where a bottle of water gets a flashback, complete with POV – and provides TV commercial level shine to all objects inside the car. What is shown through the windows, on the other hand, looks more like (more or less seamless) VFX animation than actual views of Japan, suggesting that the film was shot entirely on Sony’s land in Culver. City, or he might as well have been.
All of “Bullet Train” was supposed to be shiny, all-star, late summer nonsense, but instead it gives shiny, all-star, late summer nonsense a bad name.
“Bullet Train” opens in US theaters on August 5.