Review: “Bullet Train” Moves Too Fast to Make Much Sense

The approach to adapting Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel, ”Maria Beetle,” here was all wrong, and David Leitch was not the right filmmaker for this project
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I can imagine most reviews of Bullet Train, the new action movie starring Brad Pitt will say it’s “off the rails.” Of course, other critics will argue that “It’s a blast! Why can’t you just have fun with it?” In other words, why can’t I just submit and surrender to some good old-fashioned summer entertainment? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I don’t go to the movies for fun alone. Sure, I want to have a good time, just like you. But more than anything, I go to the movies to see a good story. By all means, go see Bullet Train and laugh along as Pitt blow-dries his hair with the help of a fancy toilet. But if you’re looking for a satisfying story, you may want to look for another mode of transportation, as Pitt’s latest vehicle moves way too fast to make any sense.

The Oscar-winning actor stars as Ladybug, a perpetually unlucky assassin tapped as a last-minute replacement for a mission that requires him to board a Japanese bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto and retrieve a briefcase for his mysterious handler (Sandra Bullock). But Ladybug is hardly the only lethal passenger aboard this high-speed train.

The 16 cars also include British “twins” Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and standout Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose killing skills are established in a murderous sequence that feels like something of Zombieland. The passenger list also includes the Prince (Joey King) and the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), whose innocent looks can be deceiving, and eventually, the Wolf (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny), who is eager to avenge the (disgusting) death of his wife. Oh, and there’s a deadly snake aboard as well. Yes, a snake on a train. Get it? Meanwhile, waiting at the final stop is a vicious character known only as the White Death, played by Michael Shannon, whose performance feels destined for a Razzie nomination.

Image via Sony Pictures

As one of the very few critics who are likely to have actually read Kotaro Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle (since rechristened Bullet Train), I feel more than qualified to tell you just why this movie is such a disappointing failure. For starters, while I hate to be one of those “but the book is so much better!” critics, I’m going to have to do just that, because it really is true in this case. Bullet Train should’ve been a gritty crime film that kept you guessing, but director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw) and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz have instead delivered a live-action cartoon that has very little weight or suspense to it. The violence is almost slapstick in nature—that is, until the end when it becomes almost jarringly gory.

I totally understand what Sony saw in Isaka’s book and why they decided to turn it into a summer blockbuster. The general rule of thumb in the industry is that if you can get Brad Pitt, you get him. And while Pitt is good here, if a little goofy, I found him to be sorely miscast. In the book, Ladybug is something of an underdog… not long-haired hero Brad Pitt. You can’t just slap some glasses on the man so we underestimate him. Reading the book, I pictured Benedict Wong as Ladybug, and frankly, Pitt’s own co-star, Brian Tyree Henry, may have worked better as the lead here as he also feels miscast as Lemon, a sweet-hearted slayer whose worldview is based on the characters of Thomas the Tank Engine (an appropriate tie-in given the film’s setting). Speaking of which, why is Bullet Train even set in Japan? If you’re going to whitewash the cast and put a bunch of Americans and Brits on the train, why not just move the setting? But I digress.

Aside from some of the film’s casting, the real misstep here—the element of the adaptation that really rubbed me the wrong way—is the script’s treatment of the Prince, who is genuinely terrifying in the book. Here, rather than showing you her natural evil—how she lures a young boy to a rooftop and pushes him off of it and into a coma—the movie settles for telling you. And why is that? Because this is a neon-colored summer blockbuster; it can’t afford to get too dark.

Image via Sony Pictures

In the end, the approach here was all wrong, and Leitch was not the right filmmaker for this project. Sure, he can stage some really cool fight scenes, as evidenced by Atomic Blonde, Nobody, and Pitt’s hand-to-hand battle with Bad Bunny in this film, but Bullet Train is his fifth-straight movie to leave me disappointed on some level. I’m not suggesting that the original John Wick had an Oscar-worthy script or anything, as that revenge story was pretty thin itself, but it seems like the success of that film has really emboldened Leitch to go through his career thinking that he doesn’t need a tight script to make a mark so long as the opportunity to provide dazzling visuals is an option.

However, he’s sorely mistaken, because I’ve read the book and still had a hard time following Bullet Train. That’s how overly convoluted Olkewicz has made the screenplay. You just don’t care about any of these disposable characters—none of whom even seem all that interested in the film’s Maguffin (the briefcase) anyway. There are also two highly distracting cameos (in addition to Bullock) that immediately remind you what kind of movie you’re watching—a blockbuster in which big stars are supposed to comfort you and reaffirm that you’re having a great time, though what they’re really doing is trying to compensate for the lack of drama.

I’ve read that the team behind Bullet Train was aiming for “Buster Keaton meets Jackie Chan.” While that’s a noble goal, they clearly missed the mark. This is slick, mindless entertainment for the masses and little more than that. I won’t name names, but the critic I sat beside pulled the emergency brake handle before the ride was even over, which is all you really need to know about this one. Off the rails, indeed.

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