Monday, August 8, 2022

Bullet Train is a bumpy, albeit occasionally fun, ride

Imagine you're eating a meal that, while it's sliding down your throat, tastes really good. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it hits the right notes as your taste buds first get a hold of it. But in the back of your brain, something's off. There's a teeny tiny voice in your head saying "the flavor's off, the texture's weak." As the minutes pass, and the dish becomes more and more of a memory, those imperfections become increasingly sizeable in your mind. You don't hate what you just ate, but it's not quite as good as when you were chowing down on it. That's what Bullet Train is. There's enough razzle-dazzle and movement on-screen while it's playing to keep you reasonably satisfied. However, once I left the theater, I found myself fixating on how it could've been better rather than focusing on my favorite funny lines.

There are a lot of diverging plotlines in Bullet Train, but our lead character is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), an assassin that's been looking to put more peace out into the world. That's why he didn't bring a gun for his newest assignment, a snatch-and-grab mission revolving around a briefcase aboard a bullet train in Japan. The case belongs to a pair of British assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who has a deal to finish up with the extremely dangerous gangster The White Death. Simultaneously, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) hops on to this train to take out The Prince (Joey King), who claims responsibility for pushing this man's adolescent son off a building. Turns out, though, that The Prince has her own scheme that she'll need Kimura for. 

All these storylines begin to gradually collide, sometimes amusingly, sometimes dangerously. As Ladybug deals with one new assassin after another, one thing becomes clear: this train is bad news. Oh, and that things are gonna only get worse as the train gets closer and closer to the end of the line.

In only his second screenplay credit, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz executes Bullet Train, an adaptation of a novel by Kōtarō Isaka, with an eye toward mimicking a lot of different styles. The gangsters with heavy British accents who can't stop chatting and engaging in non-linear digressions immediately evokes the works of Guy Ritchie. Meanwhile, lots of the wry dialogue evokes the style of comedy from Deadpool 2 (among other contemporary superhero movies), which shares director David Leitch with Bullet Train. Obviously, it's never inherently bad to make something that owes a debt to older pieces of cinema. Every movie is working in the shadow of older features, you can never divorce the medium's present from its past.

But Bullet Train would be better if its swirling storm of influences resulted in a mega-entertaining standalone film rather than something that constantly reminds you of other motion pictures. Part of the problem is that it's never quite as dangerous or innovative as it needs to be. Bullet Train thinks of itself as wildly unpredictable, yet the plot ends up resorting to dead wives to motivate characters so often that I half-expected this to culminate in a big final gag involving Christopher Nolan. The two big celebrity cameos have been done better with the same actors elsewhere, the barrage of needle drops (particularly a climactic use of "Holding Out for a Hero") aren't especially imaginative, while several gags (like a moment where Ladybug comments on how "weeeeeiiiirrrd" Japanese toilets are) feel about as stale as milk left out in the sun. The self-aware comedy and atmosphere of Bullet Train suggest something that's too hip to be predictable. Unfortunately, Olkewicz's script indulges in too many trite elements to be truly subversive.

The screenplay also runs way too long at 127 minutes, a tighter 80-minute edit would've made the familiarity of the proceedings significantly more forgivable. It also has to be said that, yes, Bullet Train does not do right by its Japanese characters, reducing three of its four most notable depictions of people from Japan to a mean conductor, a car attendant who has maybe two lines, and poor Andrew Koji being held for ransom. This is already a disappointing choice on its face, but it's especially weird since Kimura and his father, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), feel like they should be the leads of the movie. They're the characters with the most emotional stakes in the plot, most rooted in the central backdrop, and both Koji and Sanada are enormously charismatic. Bullet Train isn't a mixed bag because it isn't that alternate movie, but it's rarely a good sign when a summer blockbuster has you thinking about alternate cuts that could've been superior.

Despite all these complaints, Bullet Train, believe it or not, still registered as a perfectly fine distraction for me, at least in the theater. The movie does what it says on the tin in terms of putting a lot of big-name actors playing people with violent tendencies into one cramped train and it often works decently in that regard. The film especially works well when it dials back the dialogue and relies on physicality and visual humor to carry the day. A skirmish between Ladybug and Lemon in a quiet car has some fun sight gags, for instance, while a character's comically accidental death by way of a briefcase is dark but highly amusing. The R-rating also allows for some enjoyably over-the-top demise, with our hero's lack of a gun meaning they have to come from much more creative places than just a bullet to the head. My personal favorite? One goon that just gets pulverized while trying to attack one of the heroes on the roof of the train.

The actors deserve much of the credit for making this material largely diverting, especially since director David Leitch doesn't bring his eye for incredible fight choreography like he did on John Wick and Atomic Blonde. Brad Pitt sometimes struck me as a bit miscast, but his extensive experience playing chilled dudes serves him well in someone trying to find inner peace among a steadily growing pile of corpses. Brian Tyree Henry stands out as the best of the ensemble cast, though, as Lemon, which shouldn't be a surprise given that Henry has managed to deliver the best performances in everything from If Beale Street Could Talk to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. He's a lot of fun on his own, but Henry also excels in his scenes with Aaron Taylor-Johnson (hey, he's a lot of fun here too, good for him). The duo has an entertaining rapport that manages to work even when the script's dialogue beats Lemon's initially humorous fixation on Thomas the Tank Engine to death. 

Bullet Train has its charms and serves as a good acting showcase for the likes of Brian Tyree Henry and Hiroyuki Sanada. As something to watch in August that'll get you out of the heat for two hours, you could do worse. Unfortunately, it's also a heavily derivative exercise, one whose gags and action beats feel too familiar to be as shocking as they should be. With so much talent assembled, you'd think there would be more creative sparks flying. I can't say I didn't have a decent time while I was in the theater with Bullet Train, but it's also not a ride I'll remember long into the future.

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