August 10, 2022
Director David Leitch’s latest picture, Bullet Train, is a bright and neon-hued mashup between Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill — and it unfolds in a fashion redolent of a Guy Ritchie film.
But despite its gamut of prominent influences, it doesn’t quite have the fineness of any of them.
Leitch, a former stuntman who debuted as a director with John Wick, brings that same meticulously choreographed violence to Bullet Train. His movies are, at times, like watching the Bolshoi ballet with Berettas instead of tutus. AndLeitch’s aesthetic beautifully candies the film’s visual palette. Vibrant neon greens, oranges, and purples accentuate the emotions in the scenes they accompany.
Ladybug, played by Brad Pitt, is a hit man working under some dubious organization. His mission sounds simple enough: Board the high-speed train to Tokyo and retrieve a briefcase. He soon discovers the train to be brimming with hired guns, all of whom are after the same briefcase, with their own backstories and motivations.
The film’s narration borrows heavily from Ritchie’s Snatch or Two Smoking Barrels. Christening his killers with cavalier nicknames such as “Wolf,” “The Hornet,” or “White Death,” Leitch introduces each with their own cut scene, giving you a glimpse of the carnage they enacted to accrue their notoriety.
In an early scene, one of the assassins, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), reminds his partner, “He hired us because of Bolivia,” as the film cuts to a snapshot of their past, massacring dozens in a macabre frenzy.
Beneath Bullet Train’s flashy gunfights, decapitations, and headshots is a flimsy conceit about fate. “I have the worst luck,” vents Ladybug in another scene; he kills people without even intending to. The mastermind antagonist, Prince (Joey King), meanwhile, claims she’s endowed with the best of luck, evading death by sheer happenstance as her would-be killer unknowingly knocks himself unconscious when he drinks a drugged water bottle.
But beyond making for a funny setup in which a knife-wielding belligerent accidentally boomerangs his knife into his own chest and proceeds to break his neck on a fall, such a lofty theme feels out of place in the lighthearted action-comedy. Leitch fiddles with these coincidences throughout the film, asking the viewer if we are bound by luck or at the mercy of fate. Bullet Train is more Fast and Furious than No Country for Old Men. It doesn’t carry nearly the same gravitas.
Throughout its two-hour run time, Bullet Train gradually builds momentum. A slow first act sets up the characters and their respective storylines. Some, like Ladybug’s, are tightly knit, balancing Pitt’s comedic timing and action sequences. Others, such as Lemon’s (Brian Tyree Henry), occasionally meander as Lemon drones on about his penchant for Thomas the Tank Engine. The morally depraved hit man as a children’s show fanatic is a funny trope the first time, but its unyielding overuse turns it into an annoyance.
Although the dialogue lacks the nuances of the wry British humor it tries to copy, Leitch’s star-studded cast manages to buoy the film. Pitt’s effortless charm and charisma serve as reminders of the power movie stars carry. Meanwhile, ostensible twins Lemon and Tangerine share great chemistry as they bounce banter between their contrasting personalities.
Once the second half comes around, the pace picks up; the characters’ disparate stories begin to unfold as they dwindle down to a singular plot. The final act, as the train pulls into Tokyo, is a spry, blood-splattered romp that more than makes up for any of Bullet Train’s shortcomings.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner