Director: David Leitch
Stars: Brad Pitt, Bryan Tyree Henry, Hiroyuki Sanada
Teased to the nth degree over the last 6 months, the various trailers for Bullet Train tempt us with a number of the action flick’s comedic moments, but the funniest element presented isn’t a pratfall, sight-gag or dialogue snippet, rather it’s the text that advertises boastfully “from the director of Deadpool 2” as though that’s something to be honestly proud of. At least they didn’t have the gall to implement the comically overused adjective “visionary”, although that might’ve been the cherry on top.
David Leitch’s solo output following his co-director credit on John Wick has been a rather moribund story (Deadpool 2 being probably his worst offence), lending this entire project a red flag from the get-go. Yet the star-studded cast and well-constructed advertising campaign has done well to suggest a reversal of fortune for Leitch; two hours of good dumb fun for us all to escape with in the confines of an air conditioned multiplex during these humid summer nights.
Even the most cursory Google search will inform you that a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will take approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, and yet Brad Pitt’s outta-retirement spook ‘Ladybug’ here commutes an entire night as he befalls numerous foes, assassins, oddballs and bunglers. This anachronism – easily researched – is indicative of a profound laziness found throughout Bullet Train. Screenwriter Zak Olkewicz has leaned hard into the ‘dumb’ while skipping over much of the ‘fun’ in this summer blockbuster’s mandate, providing one of the most loathsome scripts in a summer roster pocked with turkeys.
Bullet Train imagines, “what if The Dude from The Big Lebowski was a hot-shot mercenary?” and that’s the role Pitt inhabits. In fairness, when he’s not having to spout quasi-New Age enlightenment like he’s the first to hear it, Ladybug is a pleasure to be around. Pitt’s affable charm lends a helping hand, and we want him to succeed in stealing a briefcase or, at least, getting out of this thing alive.
The trouble is the supporting cast of zany adversaries all trying to get in his way, every single one of whom is labored with either reams of extraneous exposition dressed up as colourful storytelling, or the kind of flat-out bad Tarantinoisms that felt labored 20 years ago. A surprising portion of the picture is spent in the company of lacklustre mockney hitmen Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s not untrue to say that 75% of Henry’s dialogue is in service to amiable children’s TV character Thomas the Tank Engine (no, really); a ‘bit’ that exhausts itself by the end of their first scene together, and is then dragged painfully through every single one that follows. Taylor-Johnson’s Guy Ritchie reject, meanwhile, is so blandly, persistently irritating that I found myself in poor Ladybug’s position; compelled to get off this nightmare commute, but thrown back in by its breathless – and seemingly endless – onward journey.
Bullet Train is lovingly beholden to a lot of silly late ’90s action fare, but many of it’s crimes are wholly contemporary ones. Disgusting-looking CG. Celebrity cameos that add nothing beyond point-and-smile platitudes (one of which has been sold out by the film’s over-zealous marketing). Glib or sassy quipping in place of actual character. Tokenistic nods to Japanese culture that adhere to the film’s aforementioned laziness. Extraneous detail mistaken for intricacy. There’s a zippy 80 minute actioner in here that’s been bloated to an unreasonable – and increasingly boring – 125 minute slog. Bullet Train is very nearly as long as the commute it anachronistically imitates.
The frustrating thing is that there are scattershot charms. Witticisms that work. Brief, punchy action scenes that make use of comic timing. Actual, y’know, fun. But the ratio is something like 2:1. For every episode that works there are two waiting in the next carriage to suck the life back out of this thing. Detours to nowhere. Flashbacks and more flashbacks (even a bottle of water gets a flashback). Or else something that’s working for the picture is mired by an element that corrupts or betrays it. Joey King’s psychopathic schoolgirl might’ve been a riot, but Leitch refuses to cut away from her and, at times, leans into the queasy fetishism of her ‘disguise’. Because of this, more becomes so much less.
This refusal to trim becomes most glaring in the extended – and boy do I mean extended – final act. Olkewicz’s screenplay piles on crescendo after crescendo, each time upping the ante, but each time denying the viewer the snappy smash to credits that Bullet Train starts openly begging for.
I can see the Tarantino pilfering that other reviewers have noted. This trip wants so badly to exist in the cartoonish world of Kill Bill. But Bullet Train isn’t even comfortable in the same league as QT’s imitators. Your Guy Ritchies and Matthew Vaughns. “From the director of Deadpool 2” is, ultimately, about right.
And, while we’re looping back around to the best unintentional laughs, the BBFC certificate that precedes this movie garnered the biggest laugh of the evening with the simple advisory “brief sex”. Two words that promise a blast but also, dammit, a whole lotta disappointment.