Mind the doors, please! Neither the cool carnival of assassins that the trailer suggested, nor the bland thrill-ride that some have suggested, Bullet Train is quite literally a super-powered high-velocity vehicle for Brad Pitt. He’s one of the few big stars that you actually might want to see up on the big screen in a tent-pole summer-blockbuster adaptation of a cult Japanese novel. The setting is a giant metal cow-catcher of a 16 car bullet train from Toyko to Kyoto, director David Leitch brings the chaotic snark and easy listening soundtracks of his Deadpool movies, and there’s a slew of cameos (Channing Tatum! Michael Shannon!) to remind us that Bullet Train is more comedy than thriller.
What’s not to like? Some may feel that the trailer for Bullet Train promised a Die Hard scenario but Leitch ends up going for something far goofier, with the vibe of Pitt’s stoner character in True Romance. Pitt has a similar unkempt look here as Ladybug, an unremarkable assassin who characterises himself with having the worst of luck. By his earpiece, handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) is engaging in a dialogue with Ladybug about how they see luck as he boards the titular train in pursuit of a briefcase. This briefcase turns out to be at the centre of a multiple character stand-off between various deadly gangster factions, and much of the screen-time is taken by rival assassins Tangerine and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, the latter somehow channelling Eric Idle). They’re meant to be brothers but that joke doesn’t quite land, and Lemon’s obsession with referencing Thomas the Tank Engine is irritating; the quirky hit-man conversation trope was done to death by the early 90’s.
But to credit the film, we’re meant to find the bad guys irritating, because the good guy is pretty good. Ladybug isn’t an unstoppable machine, but a reasonably confused human being with good reflexes and a bit of the old Die Hard spirit. If you like the patented Tarantino scene where someone walks in on a dramatic stand-off and the brawling antagonists suddenly have to act natural, you’re in luck, because we run that play over and over again here, the best of which comes when Ladybug and Lemon cease a galley brawl to buy a bottle of water from the stewardess. The train’s staff don’t seem to register anything untoward, but the film works best when the element of concealment is still important, when Ladybug has to accept being shushed in the quiet car. Otherwise, the cops and authorities stay away; this is a story of crims on crims.
Bullet Train feels permanently on the edge of going out of control, but when it comes to finding one more twist, it generally sees the whistle-board coming and sounds the horn on time. There’s even a lavish CGI finale that’s feels as uncontrolled as an explosion in a fireworks factory, but at least provides bang for your buck. It’s got a strong performance from Pitt, who deftly deals with some funny lines and situations, notably when he gets bitten by a deadly snake against which he had just injected himself with an antidote; who says he’s not lucky? Bullet Train feels like a mid-life crisis in cartoon form, with surreal sequences set to the vocal style of Englebert Humperdinck or even the Japanese cover of Staying Alive that kicks off the film. It’s a messy, uneven film, but Bullet Train plays engagingly with notions of luck and fate while entertaining with a gleaming surface of non-stop potential memes. You could recast every other role, but it’s Pitt that’s the happy centre that makes all this work, and Bullet Train marks another unconventional leading role for a star who rarely seems to coast on past glories.