‘Bullet Train’ movie review: Brad Pitt steers go-for-broke action flick off the rails

A disparate group of assassins finds themselves at each other’s throats aboard a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto in Bullet Train, a flashy action movie adapted from the Kōtarō Isaka novel that opens worldwide this weekend. Director David Leitch previously made John Wick and Deadpool 2, and his latest can accurately be described as an amalgamation of those two in tone, style, and even story.

In other words, Bullet Train isn’t meant to be taken seriously. And as we take in the flippant comedy, dynamite fisticuffs action, over-the-top bloodshed, hyper-stylized set decor, vibrant flashbacks, and surprise cameos, it’s an entirely diverting and generally fun ride.

But all that razzle-dazzle style is in service of a narrative that even the characters in the movie don’t seem to care about, and Bullet Train turns exhausting and it approaches its 2+ hour runtime. As the utter nonsense that constitutes a story attempts to resolve itself during the big action climax, the movie starts to come off the rails.

Until then, however, Bullet Train is mostly a blast, and it owes much of its value to an effortlessly charismatic lead turn from Brad Pitt as Ladybug, a hard-luck, soul-searching criminal who finds himself aboard the titular vehicle on a simple mission to swipe a briefcase.

Imagine Pitt’s character from Burn After Reading as a skilled John Wick-type assassin, and you’re in the right ballpark. Ladybird keeps a running dialogue with his handler (Sandra Bullock) by phone and quotes motivational posters (“when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you”) when threatened with violence. Pitt is perfectly cast as the antihero without an ounce of malice.

But while Ladybird snatches the briefcase early on, his attempts to escape the train with it are repeatedly thwarted. Everyone else on the train also seems to be some kind of John Wick-style assassin, and they’re all out to kill each other through a complex web of intrigue that leaves the hapless Ladybird caught in the crossfire and trying to unravel exactly what’s going on.

Along for the ride are Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a standout), a pair of killers who have rescued the son (Logan Lerman) of mysterious crime lord White Death (Michael Shannon) from kidnappers and are on their way to Kyoto to return him safely. They’re also the owners of the briefcase that Ladybird is after, which contains unspent ransom.

Then there’s Wolf (played by rapper Bad Bunny), who hitches a ride on the train seeking revenge on the assassin who took out his entire wedding party. And the venomous Hornet (Zazie Beetz) who takes out her targets with the help of a deadly snake… which Ladybird happens to accidentally release.

There’s also Prince (Joey King), a teenage girl who kidnaps mafia runner Kimura (Andrew Koji) as part of a convoluted plot to force him to assassinate White Death… for some reason. Kimura’s father (Hiroyuki Sanada, who lends Bullet Train its only gravitas) also shows in advance of the climactic fireworks.

The audience is continually playing catch-up throughout Bullet Train’s rat-a-tat narrative, and we never know what to expect or where this train is headed. Unraveling the story is no fun – we know this thing has a hollow center – but there’s plenty of enjoyment to be found if you can go along for the ride.

Bullet Train represents the kind of Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie crime drama that went out of style two decades ago, with a dose of John Wick narrative surrealism. If you had a good time with something like Bad Times at the El Royale, you’re likely to appreciate what’s on offer here.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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