Synopsis – Five assassins aboard a fast moving bullet train find out their missions have something in common.
My Take – As a filmmaker David Leitch has made a quite name for himself in the action genre ever since John Wick (2014) released, a film which he co-directed with Chad Stahelski (though only Stahelski was officially credited). With films like Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019) under his belt, director Leitch has now become synonymous as someone who manages to winningly strike the right balance between stylistically shot fight scenes and dry humor.
His latest, based on the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, is another effort that sees him take aim at that particular tonal target, only this time with his most expansive ensemble yet, and the result is yet another solid action-packed success that contains a good dosage of fistfights, sword fights, and comic relief to boot. Oh and a twisted plot.
Set on board a train dashing from Tokyo to Kyoto with a limited number of stops, the film approaches its subject matter, a collection of assassins with competing interests, with a sensibility that could be described as Snatch (2000) inspired but with more specific action focus and is of course sillier, more skilled and inspires its repeating super star lead, Brad Pitt, in particular to do some energetic and engaging work.
Yes, even though it kind of goes off rails with an overblown CG finale, the film is still a total blast from beginning to end thanks to its visuals, laughs, surprising twists and plenty of gleefully violent and stylishly shot action set pieces, making it a perfectly satisfying late summer release.
Set in Tokyo, the story follows Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a former assassin who has just returned to work with a newly positive attitude, informing his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) that he hopes to retire from the business for good. His latest job, which sees him taking over her normal contact who was forced to call out due to illness, is technically a simple one – board a bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, snatch a very particular briefcase and hop off.
However, what Ladybug didn’t know earlier was that the ten million dollars filled briefcase is in possession of Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), twin British assassins, who are also escorting the spoiled son (Logan Lerman) of White Death (Michael Shannon), the Russian leader of the largest criminal assassin organization in the Japanese underworld.
Making matters worse is the fact that also on board are The Prince (Joey King), a wicked girl whose charm hides her evil, The Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio), a Mexican assassin who is convinced that Ladybug killed his wife, The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), a poison-wielding hit-woman, and a revenge driven grieving father (Andrew Koji) and grandfather (Hiroyuki Sanada). As the train hurdles along the tracks at a ridiculous speed, it becomes clear that not everyone is going to make it out alive with a whole lot of miscommunication along the way.
That barely scratches the surface of the cast, including cameos clearly intended to provide little rewards to the audience. The tradeoff, though, is that some more recognizable faces appear so briefly as to barely register. Narrative wise, the film is a messy one put together, as focus briskly ping-pongs between the different players, however, everything stays in harmony as the film persistently finds ways to build on each protagonist’s arc, as different characters are drawn together from individual angles and instant conflict is generated from their simple interactions.
Running for 126 minutes, there is a lot to enjoy about a film that pits different types of assassins against each other, especially ones with their own unique gimmick. Sure, some of the wacky flourishes will likely cause more cynical viewers to roll their eyes, like when Lemon and Tangerine disagree on how many people they killed earlier, a flashback comes in recreating those murders while tallying them for the audience.
But David Leitch‘s direction, oozing style with gorgeous lighting, vibrant colors and inventive camera work, just keeps one hooked. Like with his previous films, director Leitch injects plenty of stylized action into practically every scene, even ones focused mainly on exposition. The claustrophobic setting actually works to the advantage of staging the fight sequences, which are brutal, bloody and frequently played for laughs. Anything, and I mean anything, can end up being used as a weapon, from a scotch glass to a paperback book, sort of like with John Wick and a pencil.
Additionally, the fast moving train also provides an opportunity for people to be thrown out windows or beheaded using the side of a tunnel. The action is hard hitting and occasionally very violent, but these scenes are mostly inter-cut with comical lines or jokes. There are some very cool set pieces and some of the fight scenes are highly creative for confined space combat. For example, Lemon and Ladybug fighting at their seats while trying not to disturb the other passengers. It also helps that actors are clearly having fun with their performances.
Nobody can be having more fun in all of this than Brad Pitt, who exudes both an easy warmth and deep chill in equal measures, completely unafraid to make fun of himself whilst still being a capable action star. He’s a joy to watch in action not just because of the talented craft he demonstrates in his physicality, but how he channels the psychology of the character, like how he doesn’t ever want to choose violence as a first answer, both via verbal pleas and defense-heavy moves.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry manage to standout with their perfect chemistry and great humor. Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji bring heart to the film with soulful performances. Joey King skillfully balance out all the humor and irreverence.
In smaller roles, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Masi Oka, Karen Fukuhara, and Sandra Bullock are effective, along with some cameos, who are thrown into create some appropriate chaos. On the whole, ‘Bullet Train‘ is a highly entertaining action-comedy that is backed by great characters, a fun script and extremely terrific action sequences.
Directed – David Leitch
Rated – R
Run Time – 126 minutes