An unlucky assassin finds himself on the commute from hell in David Leitch’s irritating action-thriller.
It’s easy enough for a film critic to type out the words “derivative of Tarantino,” lace their fingers, give them a good cracking, and contentedly lean back in their swiveling desk chair. But Bullet Train, the latest beat-‘em-up from David Leitch (one half of the brain trust responsible for John Wick, which bequeaths this film its gun-fu moves and affectionate Orientalism), makes showing the work much simpler than usual.
There’s really no other way to describe the smart-aleck irreverence to which Leitch aspires in spite of a moldiness that’s only grown bluer and fuzzier since the late ‘90s. Perhaps he theorized that enough time has gone by since the heyday of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs that no one would notice his shameless ransacking of their playbook, from a philosophical hitman attempting to walk a righteous path, to bickering between partnered crooks about who gets which codename, to a criminal unspooling a worldview informed by an unlikely pop-culture reference.
These zombified clichés lurch back to life in frightful new forms, draining the humor from a film that spends its long stretches of buildup relying on it. Instead of Sam Jackson quoting Caine from Kung Fu, we get Brad Pitt spouting self-help platitudes as if everyone’s just now heard about this newish ‘therapy’ racket. The banter between the various color-coded Misters has given way to a witless back-and-forth between tough guys named after fruits, making a viewer long for the somewhat more accomplished ripoffs from early Guy Ritchie. And in place of the immortal “Like a Virgin” dialogue, there’s an insufferable running joke about Thomas the Tank Engine (a show for babies, enjoyed here by a grown man!) that’s mostly just run into the ground.
Broad incongruities and inexplicable cameos — this movie makes the fatal presumption that a surprise appearance from Ryan Reynolds is a good thing audiences want to see happen — take the place of jokes as snatch-and-grab artist Ladybug (Pitt, his innate charm locked in bitter war with the thoroughly charmless writing) makes his way up and down a Tokyo-to-Kyoto train that requires one entire night to complete a two-hour trip. He’s here to purloin a suitcase, a simple task complicated by a snake on the loose and an eccentric coterie of guns-for-hire (a scattered ensemble including Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Benito “Bad Bunny” Martínez Ocasio, and Zazie Beetz) who’d all like to kill him.
This gallery of rogues, when not defined by their fleeting one-day-on-set presence (in the case of Ocasio and Beetz) or British accents bad enough to be punishable by law (King and Henry), can be reduced to the sum of their affectations. Costumes, wigs, and gimmicks attempt to provide the substance of character, and the cast’s effort to pick up the slack with hammy performances reveals only that they’re not in the class of actor adept at doing that. (Unlike Michael Shannon, who shows up late and leaves early in a role that was clearly meant for and should have gone to Nicolas Cage.)
Like the hyper-aerodynamic train slipping through the night, the fight passages that should be the film’s saving grace come out textureless and frictionless. Rapid-fire edits distort the contained spatial consistency that should make brutal poetry of hand-to-hand combat in the cramped tube of an economy car. These sequences are all digitally enhanced money shots, running roughshod over the unrivaled talent for fight choreography that Leitch has more than proven in the past.
The ballet of a beating gets lost in its belabored imitations of retro cool, most glaring in the introductory title cards giving each character a splashy, annoying entry. This, too, comes from the stunting desire to be Tarantino and to emulate his clever slickness. Though there isn’t much in here that doesn’t seem recycled, whether from the likes of QT clones like Guy Ritchie or the many, many Wick-lite action pictures that have exhausted this subgenre over the past few years. The cocked-eyebrow smugness-as-comedy, the facile relationship to Japanese cultural signifiers masquerading as homage, the interchangeable pink-and-blue color palettes — the whole thing’s run out of steam.
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Published 2 Aug 2022
A cast as colorful as the neon-laced production design.
These are jokes, technically.
Stop the movie, I want to get off.