With Bullet Train, it’s all in the title. A train, plus bullets. Woo woo, all aboard!
And yes. If you call your movie Bullet Train, you’re setting critics on a one-way street to use every train-related pun in the book. So the headlines on this John Wick-esque Brad Pitt flick make it a castaway of nonsense, a one-way ticket to snoozeville, a sleeper on the run derailed by his own inanity.
But you know what: you can buy me a ticket and I’ll meet you on the platform, because Bullet Train is awesome. It’s a gleefully over-the-top high-speed journey into action and comedy driven by swaggering turns and first-class carriage brawls, and I’d work on this railroad all day – no, I don’t think I can keep that up. Bullet Train is in theaters now and it’s just a hell of a movie fun time, okay?
Pitt stars as a hitman who is gleefully determined to trade his life as a killer for a new outlook on life. But his self-help mantras are put to the test when he boards a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and finds himself entangled in a buffet full of rival hitmen – and their sights set on unsuspecting Pitt. . Stylized, self-aware and sometimes surreal action ensues.
Your conductor for this cheerfully entertaining mayhem is David Leitch, the former stuntman and Second Unit director who helped reinvent action cinema when he co-directed John Wick, as well as helming. While Bullet Train features a bunch of high-level fight scenes, it’s not quite the wall-to-wall set-piece machine that those films were. Instead, it’s a looser, more expansive story of larger-than-life characters bouncing off each other in a comedy-dark crime film in the style of Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino and, uh, Tex Avery. . It’s clearly inspired by films of tough-talking, gun-toting Japanese gangsters, but it also shares Kill Bill’s freewheeling cut-and-paste styles, Grosse Pointe Blank’s heightened jet-black humor, and the frying-pan-to-face absurdity of a Looney Tunes toon. It also brings up Smokin’ Aces — remember that? – a similar collection of cartoon character assassins brought together in a plot built from intricate but ridiculous contrivances.
Thinking of Bullet Train as a slapstick popcorn confection, it’s easier to forgive the film’s flaws. This movie has the depth of a paper train ticket (oh, and the fact that one of your characters points out that movies these days are shallow doesn’t magically absolve your movie from being shallow).
And despite being based on a Japanese novel (Kōtarō Isaka’s Maria Beetle), Bullet Train is uncomfortably flippant about Asian culture (we really don’t need Brad Pitt saying “Wasabi!” in a fake accent Japanese as he said “El Camino!” in a false Spanish voice twenty years ago).
Worst of all is the endless parade of dead brides. It won’t take you long to count the number of women in the film, and it won’t take you long to count the number of women speaking (including a train steward whose only line is to offer Pitt snacks, in Japanese, before later being punched in the face). Meanwhile, try to count the number of male characters driven by flashbacks of their speechless wives being brutally murdered in flashback. You might suspect it’s a parody, but while this film loves to wink at the audience, this is one area where I doubt its self-awareness.
Yet Leitch keeps Bullet Train on track, blasting through station after station of zipping flashbacks, dizzying intertwining storylines, and countless intricate setups and payoffs. The excellent ensemble cast is totally committed to their unlikely characters, all of whom look utterly fantastic (both in their razor-sharp #OutfitInspo attire and in their swaggering confidence). Pitt navigates this stuff with the easy charm of an unassailable movie star, while Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry all fill the screen with confidence. Of all the people, the weakest links are Michael Shannon and rapper Bad Bunny, a charismatic musician left with a pretty thankless role that consists entirely of a silent glare. But everyone’s quick banter and engagement is what keeps the movie on track – wait, I’ve used that one before. Wow, keeping up those train jokes is hard. Listen, if you think my railroad-themed puns are tortured, wait until you see how often the movie comes back to one long Thomas the Fucking Tank Engine joke.
The final showdown lasts a bit, but just when you think Bullet Train is running out of steam (the last one, I promise), the film offers another stylistic banana. What a way to run a railroad!
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