Bullet Train (Japan/United States, 2022)

August 05, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bullet Train Poster

There’s a time and a place for mayhem, and that’s essentially what Bullet Train is: two hours of fights, carnage, and witty repartee. Oh, it’s too long, to be sure – probably at least by 20 minutes. And its puzzle-like structure is too complicated for its own good. But, taken on its own terms, it’s fun and energetic as only this sort of film can be. The characters are comic book-thin and speak like their lines were half-scripted by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Characters bear monikers like “Ladybug,” “Tangerine,” “Lemon,” “The Elder,” and “White Death.” And there’s a distinct John Wick vibe, which isn’t surprising since David Leitch co-directed (without attribution) the first of those Keanu Reeves movies before moving on to other things (including Deadpool 2).

I’d wager that expectations will play a large part in an individual’s reaction to Bullet Train. The trailer is an accurate representation of the film. There’s a lot of fighting, much of it distinctly martial arts-flavored and in defiance of the laws of physics. The characters talk like they’re auditioning for a sequel to Pulp Fiction. And there are twists and turns aplenty. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but the film works better on a visceral level than when seen through a critic’s lens.

The central character, codenamed “Ladybug,” is played by Brad Pitt, who gets to show off both his action-oriented and comedic chops. Ladybug has turned over a new leaf – he’s trying to put his killing ways behind him, choosing instead to follow a path of peace and harmony. That doesn’t stop him from accepting an assignment from his disembodied handler who contacts him via cellphone (she’s played by the familiar voice of Sandra Bullock). It’s a simple grab-and-run operation – steal a briefcase from one of the passengers on a bullet train zipping across Japan (Tokyo to Kyoto) and disembark at the next stop. What could possibly go wrong?

Ladybug has an extraordinary super-power: he’s a magnet for bad luck, a veritable walking testimonial to the validity of Murphy’s Law. And he’s not the only criminal on the train. Far too many of his fellow passengers are equally as lethal (if not more so). There are guns, knives, and a poisonous viper. The only two who, like Ladybug, are doing a job are the “twins,” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). (They have a discussion about their names that was inspired by Reservoir Dogs.) Everyone else is out for revenge: the seemingly innocent Prince (Joey King), who looks like a grown-up Boo from Monsters Inc.; the glum Kimura (Andrew Koji); his sage father (the legendary Hiroyuki Sanada, now entering his seventh decade in front of cameras); the somewhat unhinged Wolf (Benito A Martinez Osasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny); and the more-than-somewhat unhinged White Death (Michael Shannon). Throw in Zazie Beetz and the Cameo Who Won’t Be Mentioned and you have quite a cast.

The movie occasionally slips up by trying to build in a few character details. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often. For the most part, Bullet Train is like John Wick in that it emphasizes the video game aspects of the experience – a neon-pallet filled with goofy Japanese anime characters, fast-paced action, stunt work that’s mostly done on a computer, and a big finale. For anyone who cares, the pieces that form the narrative eventually fall into place, one-by-one-by-one.

It's easy to be snarky about a movie like Bullet Train and undoubtedly some critics are going to hate it (primarily those who wax poetic about some of the most boring shit out there). But, hey, it’s more enjoyable than at least 50% of the superhero films in the market and comes with zero pretentions. It knows what it is and is proud of it. And, damn it, I stayed alert and attentive for the entirety of the production and didn’t check my watch until past the 100-minute mark. Does Bullet Train go off the tracks? It sure as hell does, but that’s the point. Why make a movie about a speeding train if it doesn’t derail?

Bullet Train (Japan/United States, 2022)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Home Release Date: 2022-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Action/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1