Bullet Train is an action-mystery film by David Leitch that blends uniquely entertaining storylines, gorgeous stylistic influences, and a potentially excellent cast into a rather bland result of style over substance.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Andrew Koji, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brain Tyree Henry, Joey King
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where across its 126-minute runtime that Bullet Train begins to derail from its original concept and stylistic intent, opening with all the potential for an intensely entertaining and darkly comedic action-mystery film but closing its journey with all the exhaustion and delirium of waking up on public transport.
The film opens with Ladybug (Brad Pitt) accepting a job as a substitute for another assassin, Carver. He boards a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto while a voice directs him through an earpiece, where he’s tasked to steal a briefcase and then exit at the next stop.
Unfortunately for this personification of Murphy’s Law, Ladybug finds the train occupied with passengers that seem to be an autobiographical collection of his past jobs and connections.
Each of these passengers is also both the protagonist of their own story and part of the wider collective ensemble narrative and, for the most part, it works until everyone falls into a caricature of themselves due to the maintenance required in balancing it all.
Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) begin as a complex, contrasting duo that intends to be the film’s unique and quirky aspect of pop culture manifested into quotable banter, The Prince (Joey King) has all the initial makings of a Machiavellian (next stop: connective signposting) personification dressed as a Harajuku Hit-Girl, while Andrew Koji as Yuichi Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder appear to be both the catalyst and the glue holding the mystery and story together.
The potential for all of these characters, as individuals and as a part of the whole, becomes initially diluted, and then abandoned as the film accelerates closer to its inevitable end. Perhaps this is both the blessing and curse of David Leitch as director, whose previous directing work includes Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde – but whose stunt work has provided a vast amount of creative experience to draw from.
This creative knowledge bank of influence pours itself out on screen without any limitations or filters, almost as though it attempts to balance too many influences and stylistic moments and eventually begins to rely on only a few of the easiest to maintain. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Hitman: Agent 47, Spy Game, Ocean’s Eleven, Speed Racer, Tron: Legacy, S.W.A.T., The Mechanic, The Midnight Meat Train, I Am Legend, 300, V for Vendetta, Blade, and the aforementioned Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde, with hints of Smokin’ Aces and Scott Pilgrim vs The World.
These are all (mostly) great films, but the differences they have conflict more than the overlaps of similarity work together. To try and blend too many simply reduces them to their most basic parts, the dialogue of this film, the visuals of that film, the story beats of that other film, and so on.
The dialogue shows the promise of an earlier script before it switched to a forced and lighter tone, which resulted in greater character inconsistency for the sake of cutting corners in storytelling. Dialogue and characters initially feel reactive and responsive to the story they are in, but soon become detached and robotic, with jokes and insights written first and the story created to allow them to function.
The initial transition and then total collapse into this type of structure results in a second half that simply indulges our internalised cynicism as a society, where insights and commentary and jokes are just the things the audience would say if they found themselves in that perfect situation, things that the audience already say in real life but in their non-fantasy, poorly chosen situations, but are now justifiable and reflected on screen. It’s delightfully cringe.
This is where the film ultimately ends up, backing itself into a corner stylistically and leaving everything rather meaningless. There’s a post-credits scene that popped up halfway through me leaving the cinema that I didn’t stop to watch, because what was the point? Would it make it all worth it, reveal some great mystery, or was it just another indulgent template attempt at engagement and trying to manipulate the feeling I’d seen what I want to see?
The result is a film that feels more like Willy Wonka’s boat ride than a high-speed train journey, a film that begins its journey telling the audience to pay attention, that they don’t want to miss a second of this wild ride into captivating, stylistic entertainment.
Unfortunately, it struggles to maintain this creative ambition, eventually asking the audience to pretend they haven’t seen this same scenery and been on this same journey before, and just succumb to the hypnosis of repetitive, comfortable familiarity.
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