I’m a sucker for movies set on modes of transportation. There’s something about the contained space combined with the inherent sense of momentum that makes for easy, comfortable viewing. Bullet Train understands the appeal as well, using its propulsive setting to stage a story in the curious subgenre of movies about wacky assassins.
Our hero is a hitman (Brad Pitt) addressed only by his codename, Ladybug, who’s convinced he’s cursed with bad luck. Returning to work after a hiatus, he’s requested something simple for his first job back, and his handler (Sandra Bullock) has obliged him: his mission is to steal a mysterious case aboard one of Japan’s lightning-fast trains. But wouldn’t you know it, several other passengers – all killers themselves – are vying for the same case. The motley crew includes adoptive brothers Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), deceptively girlish Prince (Joey King), and several others; all of whom are either trying to secure the case for themselves or deliver it to its rightful owner, a Russian Yakuza boss called the White Death (Michael Shannon).
Bullet Train’s plot isn’t irrelevant, but it’s clearly not a top priority. This is a movie built on a hodgepodge of out-there ideas rather than a tight structure, and the story is a perfectly adequate vehicle for throwing them together. What really keeps things from going off the rails is Brad Pitt, whose charm is winning enough to distract from the fact that there’s not a whole lot to his character. His phone calls with Bullock’s sardonic handler are a highlight, providing some much-needed deadpan to counter the movie’s frequently broad humor.
Bullet Train’s script can mistake crassness for wit: one (thankfully) minor character’s entire schtick is punctuating her sentences with the word “bitch,” a bit that’s precisely as witty as it sounds. But it’s the same kitchen-sink impulse that yields the movie’s most oddly inspired touches, like Lemon’s philosophical obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine. Here’s a running gag that, on paper, should be excruciating, but instead kills thanks largely to Henry’s straight-faced delivery.
Because of its massive ensemble, some of Bullet Train’s supporting cast get lost in the shuffle, but the key players have fun with their larger-than-life characters. Taylor-Johnson and Henry’s cockney buddy act is amusing, even if they seem to have wandered in from a Guy Ritchie movie, and Hiroyuki Sanada is effortlessly cool as the requisite Zen badass. Though both the performances and the roles vary in quality, the important thing is that everybody’s game – an absolute necessity for such a silly movie to work.
Bullet Train is blessedly free of identity crisis, and never takes itself too seriously. Instead it leans into its absurdity, cleverly making its contrivances a plot point by invoking the concepts of luck and fate. While the story can be convoluted, it also has an undeniable rhythm, nimbly cycling through plot developments, over-the-top set-pieces, and light comedic respites. The movie takes big swings with its visuals, soundtrack, and dialogue; the hits show real panache, and even the misses are admirable in their audacity. You have to give Bullet Train credit for trying, even if it tries a little too hard.