Director David Leitch’s first feature film was Atomic Blonde in 2017, followed by Deadpool 2 in 2018 and then Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw in 2019. Of course, he also did a Celine Dion music video in there, too, but let’s focus on the movies. As one can tell from his first three movies, Leitch has a style, one greatly influenced by his background as a stuntman and a martial arts expert, one that can easily be described as—how I shall I put this—insane. Each of his films are manic, high octane, ultra violent, darkly comic and action-packed fight fests, with tons of guns, car chases, dizzying camera movements and over-the-top performances that cater to those audiences who not only wish to escape the real world, but wants to kick it in the nuts as it leaves.
Now I sort of liked Atomic Blonde, mainly for the late ‘80s Berlin setting, Charlize Theron’s fantastic performance and the killer soundtrack, but Leitch’s style took all the fun out of it for me, as the extended fight sequences grew old and the script, with all of its convoluted plot twists, couldn’t get out of its own way. But we discovered that Leitch had a dynamic style, all neon and kinetic, a kind of filmmaking that felt like a shot of adrenaline. The success of Deadpool 2 led to doing a Fast and Furious movie, which also did very well for him. But those were prized franchises with built-in audiences and already-set tones. I was looking forward to seeing what Leitch could do with another Atomic Blonde-type opportunity, a script that was borne from something original, not a sequel or a comic book film.
And along comes Bullet Train.
Like Atomic Blonde, Bullet Train is based on a book, and, like Atomic Blonde, its plot centers on hired assassins. The center of the action is a hitman newly out of retirement, played by Brad Pitt, who has been given the codename Ladybug, due to his penchant for bad luck. Ladybug is deciding to take a more Zen-like approach to his assignment, which his boss, heard only on the phone until the final scene, assures him will be easy and quick. All Ladybug has to do is steal a briefcase from a passenger riding the bullet train in Japan. That’s it. Easy in and out. Even though Ladybug has no idea who the briefcase belongs to or what’s in it, his mission is clear and he’s the best in the business, if not slightly rusty, so the job really shouldn’t be a problem for him.
So, of course, it becomes a problem for him.
As fate would have it, every bad guy or hired assassin in the world happens to be on the same train and, not coincidentally, Ladybug’s “easy job” turns into a much more complicated mission where getting out alive would alone be considered a miracle.
Needless to say, packing a train with hired assassins, all trying to kill each other, sounds crazy, right? Oh, just wait. It’s so much more insane than that.
If you’ve ever wondered what a live-action version of a Roadrunner cartoon would look like, welcome to Bullet Train. From start to finish, this film is non-stop, outrageous, brutally violent and comically extreme, so much so that a poisonous snake loose on the train is only a minor subplot. I will say that the one area where Bullet Train surpasses other films of its same mindless action genre is in the fact that it doesn’t rely on superheroes or machines, like cars, planes, helicopters, tanks, etc, to generate the action. All the action and the violence comes from human-to-human engagement, up close and personal, and I do have to admit that provides Bullet Train with its most clever and entertaining moments, thanks to a game and charming cast, each of whom buy in whole-heartedly to the nonsense. It was actually refreshing to see the intimate and unsophisticated schoolyard-type brawls that would make full use of any prop within reach, reminiscent of the greatest fight scene of all time between Elle and Beatrix in Kill Bill, v. 2. No Transformers, aliens, superheroes or super weapons here, everything in Bullet Train is all very mano a mano.
It’s just too bad it’s all so completely ridiculous.
The non-stop logic-defying premise just becomes numbing after a while, as it’s impossible to take anything seriously. Sure, nothing is supposed to be taken seriously in this film, but why are you bothering giving this a real setting in a real place if you aren’t going to adhere to a single law of physics? I’m probably being way too much of a stick in the mud here, but I love a great action movie—when it’s not a complete cartoon. There is no real sense of urgency, relevance or stakes because Bullet Train separates itself from an intellectual processing of anything from the very first scene. You quickly realize that it’s a film actually about pushing to extremes, being illogical and negating anything real, but, for me, I just couldn’t buy in.
But is it fun, at least? Again, it depends on your definition of fun. Most of the performances are great, especially Pitt, who commits fully to his character and to the physicality of the role, something we haven’t seen from him since Mr. & Mrs. Smith. He combines the studliness from that film with the doofishness of his character in Burn After Reading to create a thoroughly charming and clueless central character who makes Bullet Train entertaining, at least. Great performances are also turned in by Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as partners who bicker like a married couple. There are some fun cameos (and some bad ones) and the production design is beautiful, as is the stylized cinematography and Leitch-branded use of bright color and raucous (and sometimes hilarious) needle drops.
Bullet Train is marketing itself as a balls-to-the-wall action flick, and, while that’s not a lie, it’s also not necessarily a good thing. Then again, I loved the Roadrunner cartoons, so who am I to deny someone’s enjoyment of a movie that’s just as insane, charming and utterly pointless.