That’s the look of a man in over his giant, floating head.
Japan is a vibrant wonderland filled with neon billboards, delicious food and giant fighting robots. Her people live organized, productive lives in a colorful Utopia populated with living anime characters. The country is defended, around the clock, by a 300 foot tall nuclear powered rage-lizard.
And when it’s time to travel long distance, why take a boring plane when you can ride the world famous Bullet Train? This sexy mechanical marvel levitates above the ground – like an aircraft – but looks like what happens when dolphins and robots are allowed to breed. It is powered entirely by the happiness of its passengers.
Also there are ninjas everywhere, so don’t try anything.
Actually, I’m not trying to accurately describe Japan. I’m pretending I’m in a pitch meeting and I have thirty seconds to convince a roomful of jaded millionaires to give me ninety million dollars.
But you can’t deny that Japan’s unique character does lend itself to fetishization. And director David Leitch’s new thriller Bullet Train is a boxcar full of fetish. If you can’t bring to mind Leitch’s work, think Deadpool 2, which I remember enjoying, even though I can’t remember what it’s about. Then there’s Atomic Blonde, which I’ll never forget and love so much just might watch as soon as I finish writing this.
What I’m getting at is that I expected Bullet Train to be stylish to the point of distraction and impossible to walk away from midway through.
Just like an actual bullet train.
That is a straight up Sex Caravan, and I’ll hear nothing else about it.
The film is based on a 2010 novel called Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka. The book is darker, nastier and unafraid to dangle ghastly concepts in front of you without implicitly describing them. Had Leitch transplanted that tone to his movie, we wouldn’t talking about it because that movie would make A Clockwork Orange look like an episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Instead, Bullet Train feels like a descendant of late 90’s Tarantino-adjacent fare like Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) or The Boondock Saints (2000). This means a lighter, video game-like sheen to the proceedings. Still, like the book, Bullet Train takes full advantage of its location, borrowing liberally from the grand old genre of the “train” movie.
Kimura (Andrew Koji) is a grieving father whose son has been gravely injured in an act of gangland reprisal. After using his connections to track down the perpetrator, Kimura buys a ticket on the Shinkansen, Japan’s famous “bullet train”. These incredible machines travel hundreds of miles an hour and offer passengers a variety of creature comforts and delights.
Also aboard the train is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a contract assassin fresh off a nervous breakdown, on account of the comical amount of collateral damage that seems to accompany him in his work.
Personally, I think that if an astronaut starts having panic attacks, this person probably shouldn’t be an astronaut.
But Ladybug is an assassin, which is completely different than being an astronaut. So onto the train he goes. His assignment is to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from the train’s baggage compartment. Throughout the mission, he maintains contact via telephone with his sardonic, velvet-tongued mission handler (Sandra Bullock).
Also aboard are a pair of killers, code-named Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), charged with safely escorting the son of a fearsome gang leader called The White Death (Michael Shannon).
They are also in possession of a briefcase. Just saying.
Their garish clothing and constant, open bickering would seem to make them ill suited for clandestine work. But, this is the kind of movie where two people can have a literal fistfight on a train and weirdly not disturb anyone around them, because those people are not part of the story.
Almost nobody. Ever. Reacts. To. Anything.
You’re (literally) either on board with this train setting, or not.
I didn’t have a problem with it because both this, and perhaps most train stories are less about trains then they are about a group of people unwittingly caught up in the same inescapable event. In fact, there are at least two more assassins and one pair of vengeful crime lords involved in this fiasco before the end. Bullet Train is technically still introducing characters well into the third act, which I found to be quite a power move.
Some of these characters want the Case. At least one of them is after White Death Junior. Some of them actually believe they’re in control of the situation.
Naturally, each of these people has a connection to the others. Or, have in some way crossed paths before. Or, have an open beef. And in true Train Movie fashion, a lot of that beef is going in the pot on this trip. Against the neon-splashed backdrop of Tokyo and (later) the sunny hills of rural Japan, there’s ample opportunity for memorable scene composition.
The nuanced tale of personal accountability and responsibility that runs through the book is too complex to render onscreen. Zak Olkewicz turns in (I believe) his first feature screenplay in workmanlike fashion. If you enjoy turn-of-the century homages to Pulp Fiction, complete with non-sequential structure, a good soundtrack and stylized character introduction cards…
…you’ll feel right at home.
Don’t take that as shade. That was a lot of book to adapt. Going this route probably pleased a lot of people. It pleased me, in the way all films do when they at least meet their own standards. Bullet Train is as satisfying as your second favorite Fast & Furious movie, with the added benefit of you not having to endure a new installment every couple of years.
Also come for Michael Shannon, who could probably make a career out of playing villains, if he wanted to.
Oh, wait…he has.
I don’t imagine he’s stretching his chops here, but I can’t deny he elevates the film. The same goes for Joey King (The Kissing Booth), who has the unenviable task of channeling an absolutely abominable male literary character into a female one suitable for inclusion in an imaginary sequel to Kill Bill.
They used to call this kind of film “scorpions in a bucket”, in that a bunch of outrageous people with anger issues were trapped in a snow globe, given deadly weapons and encouraged to take their aggression out on each other. To be honest, Bullet Train works really well on that level, and whether that makes it “dated”, “perfunctory” or “whoa, awesome” will depend on you.
Economy of storytelling and visual flair are the name of the game, So feel free to consider this more of a stylistic romp than any kind of character study. It’s a fun, colorful, slightly violent but mostly droll two hours that you won’t conclusively love or regret.
On a side note, are you the kind of person who has a problem with films that take place in, feature and highlight Japan but rely on Western characters to drive the story? If that’s the case, go back and watch You Only Live Twice and you’ll get more bang for your buck.
Also, Bond in Yellowface. It was a different time.
Otherwise, as far as Bullet Train goes, if you’re still reading this I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it, you’ll forget it, and then you’ll immediately start looking for something else to consume.
We all do our part, I guess.
Finally, while Rob is the Literary Guy here, I DO have some thoughts on the book on which the film is based. Maria Beetle is known in the West as Bullet Train, and is somewhat longer than the average novel. But it’s a fascinating character study that layers the sociological questions behind urban and suburban living with some remarkably blunt truths about addiction and violence.
The film is worth an afternoon and the book is worth a weekend. Make it a double feature and have all the same fun I did with it.
I watched Bullet Train on Amazon Prime
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Bruce?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."