Bullet Train is the latest from 87North Productions, though I expect I’ll keep calling them Team John Wick for convenience’s sake. The very same people who raised the bar for mainstream action filmmaking and they keep on looking for new ways to outdo themselves. This time, they’ve staged a film on a Japanese bullet train with the task of utilizing the setting and everything on it in creative action-oriented ways. Even better, our protagonist is a gun-for-hire (code-named “Ladybug”, played by Brad Pitt) who refuses to handle a firearm and he’s actively working with his therapist toward a more peaceful life. Again, this means the filmmakers have to find more inventive and less straightforward means for our lead to beat people up.
So what exactly has Ladybug gotten himself in the middle of? Well, it’s a crime thriller. Which means we’ve got a whole bunch of characters in a myriad of criss-crossing storylines. Buckle up, folks.
To make a VERY long backstory short, the plot takes place against the backdrop of a gang war in Japan. On one side is “White Death” (Michael Shannon), a mysterious Russian expatriate who staged a coup some time ago and built his own breakaway Yakuza faction into the world’s greatest criminal empire. On the other side is “The Elder” (bona fide GOAT Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the Yakuza traditionalists.
The feud between them recently escalated after the Elder’s grandson was near-fatally injured under opaque circumstances. Thus the Elder’s son (Yuichi, played by Andrew Koji) got on the bullet train to try and get a lead on finding and killing those responsible for putting his son in the ICU.
While that’s going on, a pair of hitmen (code-named “Lemon” and “Tangerine”, respectively played by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) were hired by White Death to recover his own son (played by Logan Lerman) from some vague kidnapping situation and get him back to Kyoto on the same train. At the same time, they were given the task of delivering a briefcase containing $10 million. Incidentally, Ladybug (with assistance from his handler, voiced by Sandra Bullock) has been tasked with stealing this same briefcase.
What’s the point of this briefcase? Who hired Ladybug to steal it and toward what end? Why are Lemon and Tangerine tasked with delivering it to begin with? You may already have a hunch, but I’m not saying anything more than that.
Complications ensue with the involvement of “The Prince” (Joey King), who quickly turns out to be a devious criminal mastermind far more cunning and violent than her innocent schoolgirl act would suggest. I can only say so much about this character, but suffice to say that she’s Russian and well-funded, so you know she’s connected to White Death somehow.
Another potential irritant is The Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio), a Mexican assassin who lost his wife and his entire gang to a mass poisoning. He thinks Ladybug is responsible, and has thus tracked down our hapless protagonist in search of revenge. Perhaps not coincidentally, an extremely lethal snake was recently stolen from the local zoo and found its way onto the train. And last but not least, an entire car of the train has inexplicably been taken over by Momomon, a wildly popular anime character built as a “Hello Kitty” stand-in.
You may already have spotted a massive problem with this movie.
Because this is a film from Team John Wick, you’d expect this to be a hardcore straightforward action flick. And it certainly is, to an extent. The fight scenes are up to the John Wick standard, nicely choreographed and shot and edited, all with nicely creative moves and twists. Quite a few action scenes have diabolically clever setups and payoffs as well.
The problem is that we don’t get nearly enough of this because so much of the film is taken up by all the characters and their quirks and the massively convoluted plot. Ladybug keeps regurgitating all the sage wisdom he learned in therapy. Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. The Prince is a narcissistic little Hans Gruber wannabe. Everyone’s trying to kill each other over the damn briefcase. And on top of all that, we’ve got a number of quick-cut flashback montages and neon-lit onscreen titles and eclectic needle-drops like somebody’s trying to make an Edgar Wright picture.
(Side note: My screening of this movie was presented with open captions. I’m typically all in favor of putting captions up on the screen to make sure patrons with hearing loss feel included and we can all enjoy the dialogue that gets lost in terrible sound mixing. But in this case, putting together the captions with the dialogue translations and the title card graphics made watching the film a terrible headache.)
In effect, what we’ve got here is a crime thriller by way of a screwball comedy. And that would be a marvelous cross-genre mashup in theory, except that the filmmakers aren’t quite capable of keeping so many balls in the air. Too many times — most especially in the third act — I found myself wondering how a supposedly dead character could’ve possibly survived or why a certain character hadn’t shown up in a while.
More importantly, we’ve got a picture made and marketed as an action film, we’ve got a crew that made their name on action films, and we’ve got characters who are at their strongest when they’re fighting each other. The whole film is brimming with potential energy, with the constant underlying question of when fists and bullets are going to fly. All well and good, but that action is mostly confined to the third act, and the fight scenes up to that point are too short and far between.
The themes are another problem. There’s a bit in here about children and parents, and a whole lot of navel-gazing about luck and the nature of fate. None of this congeals into anything coherent. Such a waste of so much screen time.
Easily the best reason to see this movie is the cast. Pitt, Taylor-Johnson, and Tyree Henry all came to play and they played hard. King turns in her most compelling and dynamic performance yet (and yes, you’re goddamn right I’m including The Princess in that assessment). Michael Shannon and Hiroyuki Sanada are always awe-inspiring to see on the screen. That’s not even getting started on the show-stopping guest appearances from Zazie Beetz, Ryan Reynolds, Channing Tatum, and others.
Bullet Train is a tough one to gauge. It’s certainly not a bad movie — it’s funny in spots, wickedly clever in others, the whole cast is a laugh riot to watch, and what action we get is nicely staged. Trouble is, we don’t get nearly enough of the action that was such a selling point for the film. More importantly, the script is loaded with too many plotlines and potential themes for the filmmakers to keep track of.
This feels like a failed experiment. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to test their skills in a new genre and try an ensemble film as opposed to their usual “lone hero” fare (as with Atomic Blonde, Nobody, the John Wick series, etc.). But their reach exceeded their grasp and there’s definitely a sense that the film wasn’t nearly as good as it could’ve been under filmmakers who could manage a screwball comedy. (Incidentally, there’s a reason why nobody makes screwball comedies anymore: They’re really fucking hard.)
We’re heading into the typical August doldrums at the moment, which makes it easier to recommend this for a big-screen viewing. But my gut tells me to hold out for a home viewing.