Bullet Train is a stuffed movie. From the introduction, the film makes it clear that there are going to be a lot of parts to this surprisingly packed ride and you need to keep up with it. Like the eponymous bullet train the cast is on, it’s almost always moving and will only stop for one minute at a time before chugging back along. It’s precise and efficient but can leave you behind if you’re not paying attention and decide to disengage for even a minute.
I think that’s an apt metaphor for the film because Bullet Train never really stops at any point. Even in a supposedly quiet moment, there’s still a lot to unpack and understand. There’s never a moment in the film where you feel like you have a chance to breathe. That can be either a positive or a negative depending on how you view it, but it’s the truth.
If you like action movies that are non-stop thrill rides, you’ll like what you see. If you prefer action movies with a bit more substance, you’ll also find that here, but you’ll have to meet the film on its terms or get left behind.
Director: David Leitch
Release Date: August 5, 2022
Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a former assassin who has been assigned a mission in Tokyo: to recover a briefcase filled with $10 million. Granted, he’s only filling in for a guy who was sick, but a job’s a job. The briefcase is stowed on a bullet train and at first, the heist is simple. He just needs to get on the train, grab the briefcase, then get off. Ladybug has recently changed his outlook on life and is more of an optimistic pacifist so he’s thinking it’ll be a simple heist, which is unfortunate for him since the train is full of other assassins with their own goals. Some of them are trying to murder a Japanese crime boss. Others want to return a hostage. Then there are the few that also want the briefcase. So Ladybug needs to survive and find a way off the train before he’s inevitably killed by people who are way more aggressive and violent than he is.
There’s no denying the style that Bullet Train exudes. The neon lights of Japan combined with the slick design of the bullet train make everything that happens in the movie feel stylish and cool. At times, it can feel like the film is pushing its style onto the viewers aggressively. Every character, and even some random objects, have these dramatic introductions that leave an impact but are so in your face that they can be a bit distracting. Still, I can’t deny that the film is memorable and has an aesthetic that makes it stand apart from other action blockbusters of the season.
As far as action setpieces go, there’s actually a very restrained amount of action. You would think there are non-stop fight scenes involving a wide variety of assassins with different fighting styles, but in actuality, there are only a handful of fights before the climax kicks everything into high gear. What is there is well shot and decently choreographed, although the setting does present a bit of a problem for actually filming these fight scenes. The scenes are confined and tight with most of the actors, and the cameras, not really having a lot of ability to move around. Sometimes the film makes the most of it, like a hushed gunfight in the train’s silent car, but most times you just wish the fight scenes were a little more spectacular.
I know this is sounding like I’m coming down harshly on the movie, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The above comments are me just being realistic about the limitations the movie put on itself, but nearly everything else is a blast to enjoy. Yes, the fight scenes are a bit constrained, but you’re not thinking that when Pitt bumbles his way through near-death experience after near-death experience and delivers some laugh-out-loud moments.
The film is pretty funny all around, though it tends to dabble too much in the characters talking non-stop until they say something funny. Despite it taking a bit to get to the punchline in most of these exchanges, what the characters say is pretty damn hilarious. Brad Pitt offers zen advice as he’s trying everything in his power not to kill people, yet ends up doing that a lot here. Twin assassins Tangerine (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) bicker at each other like they were an Abbott and Costello routine talking about fruit and children’s TV shows. Then you just have ludicrous moments, mostly involving a water bottle, that remind you that David Leitch knows how to shoot a comedic action movie.
The film also takes a lot of time to establish its world and its characters within it, to mixed results. Every character, no matter how big or small, has a backstory to them. One of the best moments of the film is a long flashback about an assassin who boards the train, only to have them die immediately in the very next scene they’re in. It’s a great joke… one that the movie tries to repeat to lesser results… then kind of does it again for a third time towards the end. You get the feeling that Bullet Train is anxious all the time, throwing out idea after idea to try and impress you, then throwing those same ideas at you again thinking that you didn’t notice it before and they really want you to see it.
Because of this, the film also becomes overburdened with a lot of minor plot points. The film has Chekhov’s Guns within Chekhov’s Guns, loading many potential items with deadly implications ready to be used at any time. At first, it’s exciting, but it becomes really hard to keep track when there are so many of these little bombs going off. For example, the audience is told that one character’s gun is booby-trapped to explode if fired, but during a confrontation with three major characters, it’s hard to tell who is in possession of the gun and where its location is to the point when a gun is fired, I didn’t know if it was the booby-trapped gun or not. And sometimes these Chekhov’s Guns just appear out of nowhere, only there to move the plot along.
However, all of the actors deliver good performances, and that includes the few little cameos they snuck in from other actors. Everyone seems to be having a great time with it and relishing the chance to be in a wacky action movie. Pitt is a joy to watch here, giving off a really laid-back, slacker vibe. He’s just so chill that you can’t help but relate to him when things start to go out of control and he just wants to get off the train and go to a garden. Most of the characters have a gimmick, but they own it and use it to really endear you to them and remember who they are. Even the villains, led by a samurai Michael Shannon, have a certain charisma to them that makes them hard to hate.
In the moment, I was thrilled with Bullet Train and was psyched to see where it was going. The action was solid and it was building up to a great ending where all of the minor plot threads converge onto one major showdown. The more distance I have from the film though, the more I start to see its problems. It’s undeniably overloaded with content and becomes tough to keep track of everything, especially when the movie is as in your face as it is. But that didn’t stop me from just having a good time. I can’t say Bullet Train is the type of movie you should turn your brain off to watch because it most certainly isn’t, but it’s a popcorn thriller that will leave you laughing and cheering if you see it with a group of friends.
That perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on Bullet Train. It’s great to watch with friends. Yes, there are problems with the film, like the repetitive visual flourishes and plot points, okay-ish fight choreography, and its surprisingly dense storytelling, but I was grinning like a little kid watching it and seeing my friends grin like little kids too. Bullet Train is like an action movie from the 90s where you roll with just how over-the-top everything is and laugh at the spectacle of it all. The fact that the plot is meticulously crafted to the point of overindulgence is beside the point. As an action comedy, Bullet Train has great action and solid jokes throughout. It did its job, and that’s all I ever wanted from it.