There is no debate: Bullet Train is a movie bound to endear a very particular (and sizeable) demographic of movie-goers. What is more, this specific group of film enthusiasts will be there for anything and everything this film has to offer. They’ll laugh uproariously at its abundance of snarky comedy, they’ll react accordingly to the film’s omnipresent slapstick humour, as they will to its overall tongue-in-cheek tone, or its hyper stylized aesthetic and flamboyant fight choreography.
Put succinctly, if you’re a fan of John Wick and Deadpool movies, chances are you’re going to fall head over heels for Bullet Train and nothing I – or anyone else – say could possibly change your mind. In fact, you’re highly unlikely to read any criticism on this movie in the first place as your decision to put on your shoes and head to the cinema has been made well in advance of the film’s release. Bullet Train is undoubtedly going to become a favourite among the die-hard fans of David Leitch’s other directorial works.
Consequently, as night follows day there will be some who’d react to this movie like a cat to an onion – with audible retching, highly dramatic poses and acquired cultural victimhood. And as such, anything I say to defend this movie on its merit will fall on deaf ears. So why bother?
But then… Then, you have swing voters – a silent majority of audiences who don’t attach themselves to any brands and don’t subscribe to online tribes. Those folks also happen to be the primary target of this text and that’s because there is something to be said about what works and what doesn’t work about Bullet Train once the hype and superficial fan ownership have been put to one side.
Thus, the David Leitch-directed Bullet Train adapts a novel titled Maria Beetle by Kotaro Osaka and recounts a story about a fatalistic assassin Ladybug (Brad Pitt) who boards a bullet train with a mission to steal a suitcase. It also happens that the suitcase in question is in possession of a pair of other assassins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) tasked with taking it to their mysterious and allegedly immensely dangerous boss White Death (Michael Shannon). Things get complicated when a handful of other vendetta-fuelled assassins board the same train, such as a desperate father (Andrew Koji) yearning for a confrontation with whoever was responsible for putting his kid in a hospital, a bona fide sociopath posing as a schoolgirl (Joey King) and a cartel sicario with a temper management issue (Benito Martinez Ocasio). And as fate would have it, this ensemble of personalities will sooner rather than later be whittled down in a string of encounters, brawls, fisticuffs and battles of wits, all to the accompaniment of characteristically self-aware sense of humour and garnished with hefty doses of cleanly choreographed close quarter action set pieces.
The movie doesn’t exactly hide its intentions and informs the viewer how it is going to go about resolving its seemingly convoluted and character-laden plot, which arguably is going to be where some viewers will throw in the towel already. After all, Bullet Train strives to remain witty and tongue-in-cheek at all costs, i.e., by committing to using graphic violence and obnoxiously wink-wink-nudge-nudgy pop-cultural references as sources of comedic enjoyment as underpinnings of its propulsive neon-lit action set pieces. Put succinctly, anyone with a diagnosed allergy to Deadpool movies is not going to enjoy this low-rent crassness. However, if you are willing to check these dislikes at the door, you will be able to extract a modicum of enjoyment out of what happens on the screen… that is until the movie itself will run ouf of steam, roughly two-thirds into its hefty running time.
At least from where I was sitting, what made the experience of watching this neon-washed exercise in fight scene fetishism desperately trying to stay on the heels of John Wick movies, was the fact the film itself was actively informing me – the viewer – it had an ulterior motive of the aesthetic extraction. With the use of frequent and deliberate framing of certain close-up shots, lingering on monologues and underscoring crucial elements of its constituent iconography, Bullet Train was effectively attempting to function as a live-action anime. This isn’t exactly a ground-breaking discovery to anyone even vaguely aware of the fact David Leitch spent a lot of his time as a stunt performer and coordinator on the set of The Matrix movies and likely borrowed these ideas from The Wachowskis, who are well-known for their reverence to anime.
Nevertheless, this decisive approach to tone, cinematography and pacing is what makes Bullet Train a digestible piece of entertainment, even if it is completely derivative in manner in which achieves this goal. A cynic might at once dismiss it as a wannabe attempt at Wachowskis-meet-John-Woo balls-to-the-wall action filmmaking; however, I would be lying if I failed to admit certain elements of the film’s iconography just look and feel cool enough to win me over despite the fact, I am scarcely a fan of desperately self-aware action movies, overabundance of which continues unabated. It’s just fun to see shots and ideas you normally exclusively see in anime transplanted into the live-action setting, such as the way in which White Death rolls his revolver down his sleeve, or how fight encounters are blocked and staged.
But is this coolness enough to sustain a 128-minute runtime? The answer is a simple no. In fact, roughly 80 minutes into the film you’d easily expect a climactic resolution by way of the main villain making an entrance. Sadly, this is not the case, and this may be a knock-on effect of the film being an adaptation of a work of literary fiction or the reluctance on behalf of the adapting screenwriter (Zak Olkewicz) to trim the story to fit the cinematic story flow a bit better. Now, it has to be noted I have only apocryphal knowledge of the book upon which Bullet Train is based, but my own instincts and experience lead me to believe that the over-abundance of primary characters is what ultimately works to the detriment of the story and its pacing. After all, reading a book we have much more time to spend with characters, we can jump between points of view with ease and develop even the most convoluted plots to stage the most satisfying climax.
This is not always possible when translating such work to the cinematic language and often changes need to be made to the narrative to make sure the film doesn’t actively try to disengage or confuse the viewer who is no longer able to work out what’s going on at their own leisure. Thus, it is often the case that some characters are changed, diminished in importance, or excised wholesale from the story to allow it to flow more naturally and keep its pulse. Sadly, something tells me it wasn’t entirely possible here because all those many characters – The Father, Ladybug, Lemon and Lime, The Wolf, The Prince, The Elder and everyone else I may have forgotten – together form a house-of-cards-type narrative and removal of even one of them would render the entire narrative logically incomprehensible; and it is already confusing enough as it is, though it does not require wholesale suspension of disbelief to get on board with the story.
Hence, the movie eventually runs out of juice, just as its primary characters run out of the energy and will to continue punching each other in the noggin and slows down considerably to set the stage for the climactic arrival of White Death… which takes the best part of twenty minutes to achieve, during which yours truly was seriously considering taking a power nap. Granted, the momentum is once more regained as the movie kicks into gear and commits fully to its live-action anime iconography with a hyper-stylized and intricately choreographed samurai duel morphing eventually into a disaster movie set piece. But at that moment the horse will have bolted, and the viewer may no longer find it in them to get excited for this one last hurrah, even if everything on the screen is just as cool (if not more) as the first half of the movie.
Bullet Train, therefore, falls prey to material fatigue and realistically comes off the rails long before its titular train does. Taken on average, the movie is an overall middling success because one cannot deny a good chunk of its running time is perfectly serviceable and entertaining, but I don’t think it worked hard enough for me to ignore its blatant shortcomings in pacing and story structure. Taken together, the movie is a propulsive and cool-looking action thriller making the best out of its witty underpinnings and stylized anime iconography until it suffers cardiac arrest and must be revived with a defibrillator and twenty minutes of chest compressions. And it is never the same afterwards. After all, I would not expect anyone to jump up like a spring chicken after having electrical current passed through their heart in a hail-Mary attempt to restart it. The movie may be eventually resuscitated when its final act finally comes to fruition, but the viewer excitement is no longer there. All that is left is fatigue.