“Bullet Train”: Film Review
Earlier this week, I had the chance to see a sneak preview of the new action film Bullet Train, which is being released in theaters today. Here, I review the film and share some interesting tidbits about the film that were revealed in the post-screening Q&A with the director and producer.
[Author’s Note: Although I have taken aims to avoid spoiling major plot developments, this article nevertheless contains significant information about a film currently in wide release. If you have not seen the film and wish to, I encourage you to bookmark this article and return to it after seeing it.]
Long before the pandemic upended the entire movie release model, August was widely regarded as a cinematic wasteland. August marks the beginning of the lull between the launch of the major studios’ summer tentpoles and the deluge of high-profile films that arrive once the holiday season begins. There have certainly been a few notable exception to this “rule” (e.g., Guardians of the Galaxy, Straight Outta Compton, Suicide Squad), but it is nevertheless one of the more reliable ones in the film industry.
In light of this, it was with some hesitation that I made plans to go to a sneak preview of Bullet Train earlier this week. I reasoned that if it was expected to be a profitable summer blockbuster, it would have been released earlier in the season and that if it had any real artistic substance it would have been released later in the year. Nevertheless, I went. Not only do I have trouble resisting an advanced screening of a high-profile movie, but I also found the premise and cast very appealing.
Bullet Train is based on the 2010 Japanese novel of the same name by Kōtarō Isaka and, like the novel, follows a disparate group of assassins whose paths converge on a Japanese bullet train hurtling from Tokyo to Kyoto. The novel was praised for its thrilling pacing and its incorporation of dark humor. Unlike many novels that make their way to the big screen, this one seemed tailor-made for adaptation. In fact, the plot seems far more like something that Hollywood screenwriters would concoct than a novelist.
The film is directed by David Leitch, a former stuntman who has made a major name for himself in Hollywood by directing films like Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018), and Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw (2018). (Fun fact: Leitch also was the uncredited co director of 2014’s John Wick, which has spawned a franchise and is widely considered a modern classic of the action genre). He co-produced the film alongside his wife Kelly McCormick (a successful producer in her own right) and Antoine Fuqua (the producer/director known for action films like Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen).
Given the quality of the source material and the proven track record of the directing and producing team, it is not particularly surprising that the film was able to secure backing from a major studio (Sony Pictures) and a healthy budget of $90 million. However, we are living in an age where it is increasingly difficult to get any bid-budget motion picture made by a Hollywood studio that is not based on well-established IP. Thus, Bullet Train was unlikely to have been viewed as a “sure thing” by studio overlords.
If you don’t have well-established IP to work with, one of the best things you can do is to stack the cast with A-listers and hot young stars. And that’s exactly what the creative team did. Oscar-winning film icon Brad Pitt was cast in the lead role of “Ladybug,” an American assassin who is called in to fill in for a colleague after an extended absence during which he his own mental health with his unseen therapist Barry. He is instructed by his handler Maria (film icon Sandra Bullock, in a small but important role) to retrieve a briefcase from the bullet train.
The briefcase is in the possession of a pair of British assassins code named “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Henry). It contains $10 million in ransom that they are delivering to the mysterious crime boss codenamed “White Death” along with his son. There is yet another assassin on the bullet train, nicknamed “The Prince” (Joey King). She is a deceptively innocent schoolgirl who seeks to kill “White Death” by rigging the briefcase with explosives and blackmailing a Japanese man Yuichi (Andrew Koji) to deliver it to him.
If this sounds convoluted to you, that’s because it is. The film’s major flaw is that its plot is overly complicated for the style, tone, and pace of the movie. It likely all makes more sense in the book (which I admittedly have not read), but on screen it just becomes increasingly confusing and contrived up until the inevitable, action-packed finale when all the plot threads come together. The film would have benefitted immensely from screenwriter Zak Olkewicz taking one of two paths — fleshing out the backstories of each of the assassins with more nuance and clarity or simplifying things so that it is essentially archetypes duking it out. (The latter approach is the one taken by Quentin Tarantino with his two-part masterpiece Kill Bill, which this film occasionally feels like the poor man’s version of.) The screenplay also features numerous plot holes, including various aspects of “The Prince”’s story arc, the unexplained disappearance of many bullet train riders as things progress, and lack of staff and law enforcement to be found anywhere.
Despite that major criticism, there are several things I appreciated about the film. First and foremost, it is exceedingly well-cast with unique and likable performers that are a natural fit for their roles. Pitt is continuing on a trend that included his Oscar-winning turn in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the recent blockbuster The Lost City (more on that film later) by turning in a loose, humorous charismatic performance that is a marked change of pace from the more stoic performances that dominated his heyday. He is funny, charming, and charismatic throughout the film even when the screenplay saddles with him with cliches (e.g., the supposed “bad luck” he has that is never particularly funny or interesting). His physicality is just as impressive as he reported did the vast majority of the stunt work required for his character.
Even better than Pitt is Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as the British assassins. They have fantastic chemistry with one another as well as the bulk of the film’s clever lines. They bring the quality of the film up every time they are on screen. The remainder of the supporting cast, including Joey King and Andrew Koji, are perfectly fine in their roles but don’t get quite the chance to stand out that the three central men do.
The film is also chock full of cameos. I will only mention the ones here that have previously been revealed in the film’s promotional materials to avoid spoilers. Sandra Bullock is an interesting case because although she only has a single scene in which she appears on screen, she makes frequent phone contact with Pitt’s character throughout the film and thus has a pretty consistent presence. As always, she is charismatic as hell. Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, the rapper and singer better known by his stage name of Bad Bunny, appears as a Mexican assassin who also shows up on the bullet train and proves himself a competent actor. In contrast, the gifted Zazie Beetz is wasted in her too-brief role of “The Hornet,” another assassin who appears on the bullet train and whose scene probably should have been left on the cutting room floor. Two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon also shows up as the mysterious “White Death” in a bizarre and fully committed performance that is, well, exactly what anyone familiar with Shannon’s work would expect from him in a role of this nature. There are a couple of other high-profile cameos that are meant to be surprises for viewers — one was a major highlight for me and one felt like a major wasted opportunity.
The film is a visual feast thanks to director Leitch, cinematographer Jonathan Sela, production designer David Scheunemann, and the art directing team supervised by Chris Farmer. Each of the different cars on the bullet train, on which over 90% of the film takes place, has a distinct aesthetic. This makes the train itself something akin to a character, which was a well-executed creative idea. Even though the editing by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir contributes to some of the plot’s incomprehensibleness, she proves remarkably adept at staging compelling one-on-one fights and larger action sequences. She also thankfully resists the urge to adorn the sequences with the distracting flourishes that have undercut many solid action films.
Bullet Train is certainly never a boring film. It maintained my attention right up until the very end. But it was not so entertaining or captivating that I got swept up in it and didn’t recognize its notable flaws. As I watched the film, I had to actively suppress my criticisms, questions, and frustrations and commit to enjoying the film for what it is. If you can go in to the film with a similar commitment, you will likely find it an enjoyable ride.
I watched the film with a sold-out crowd at the Aero Cinematheque in Santa Monica. The audience thoroughly enjoyed the movie and Q&A that followed it with the husband-and-wife duo of director David Leitch and producer Kelly McCormick. In fact, the latter actually made me appreciate the film more. Post-screening Q&As are often highly uncomfortable experiences that reveal either that the artists behind the film are uncharismatic and narcissistic or that the audience members are creepy and unhinged. This one was a notable exception.
Among the many interesting tidbits that were shared included how Sandra Bullock came to play Maria in the film. It was well-documented that she stepped in for Lady Gaga who had a scheduling conflict with the filming of House of Gucci, but they went in depth to how they called in a favor from Bullock and how — after her time commitment to the film was extended by a rare bout of rain in Los Angeles — she called back upon Brad Pitt to return the favor by making a very memorable cameo in her film The Lost City (which was released earlier this summer and was one of the only blockbusters of the pandemic era not based on original IP). Speaking of COVID, they also went in depth regarding the trials and tribulations of being one of the first major studio films to resume production at the height of the pandemic. Given the huge cast, complex set pieces, and the film’s physicality there were challenges that I would never have thought about without hearing them muse. As Leitch and McCormick answered questions from the audience for nearly an hour, they also spoke at length about how the film’s tone was established, the unique contributions of the ad-libbing by the film’s talented ensemble, and how hard it was to get clearance to make so many references to Thomas the Tank Engine. One thing they didn’t mention is their curious decision to retain the novel’s Japanese setting but use mostly American and British actors. Nevertheless, it was a rare case of me appreciating a movie more after hearing the filmmakers talk about it.
Bullet Train is not a home run. I agree with the current critical consensus that has declared it a middling affair (it currently has a 55% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average 49/100 rating on Metacritic). But it is an ambitious swing. It is visually bold, elicits interesting performances from a diverse ensemble, and dares to try to make an event film that does not tie into an existing franchise. For those reasons alone, it deserves some credit.
The question of whether or not to spend your time and money on Bullet Train ultimately depends on how appealing idea of an inspired but sometimes unsuccessful mashup of Quentin Tarantino, James Bond, and Speed sounds to you. For me, it was appealing and I had a fun night out despite its flaws.
Rating for Bullet Train: 3.5/5 stars