Leading up to the Sony panel at this year’s CinemaCon — the annual Las Vegas convention where Hollywood studios attempt to shock and awe theater-chain operators with exclusive footage of their would-be blockbusters — a whole bunch, yet also seemingly nothing at all, was known about the ensemble action-comedy Bullet Train. Sure, from the teaser-trailer it was clear Brad Pitt leads a cast that also includes Zazie Beetz, Hiroyuki Sanada, Joey King, Michael Shannon, Sandra Bullock and Brian Tyree Henry. The movie is the color of Skittles. At one point, Lady Gaga was maybe going to be in it? But then not.
On Monday night, Bullet Train’s director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw) turned up onstage at the Caesars Palace Colosseum to fill in some of the blanks. He described the movie as a “thriller with a comedic edge” based on the novel Maria Beetle by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka and plotted around a group of “eccentric assassins who all have conflicted and connecting objectives.”
From there, Leitch previewed Bullet Train’s 15-minute opening reel.
In a decided departure from Pitt’s leonine, hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold character in the 2012 drama Killing Them Softly, the Oscar-winner plays a seemingly gun-averse gun for hire codenamed Ladybug — a scruffy presence dressed in a raincoat, plimsolls and a bucket hat whom viewers first encounter as he saunters through the rain in neon-soaked Tokyo. In conversation with an anonymous woman who seems to be handling the contracts of his crime work, we learn Ladybug is trying to do some cognitive-behavioral work on himself, consulting with a life coach named Barry who helps him be “calm and less reactive to situations.” We also learn Pitt’s character has been tasked with snatching and grabbing a briefcase — a seemingly simple enough set of responsibilities — from passengers on the titular train. But nothing is ever simple for a character on whom fortune seldom smiles. “My bad luck is biblical,” he says in the sequence. “I’m not even trying to kill people and they die.”
Bullet Train’s balancing act of mayhem and ultraviolence played for laughs is quickly established with the introduction of Lemon and Tangerine, British-dandy hitmen played respectively by Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Transporting a young prisoner (played by Logan Lerman) as well as the briefcase Ladybug is out to steal, the two begin bickering about how many people they murdered to achieve their captive’s freedom; they can’t agree whether it’s 16 or 17. Cut to an elegant montage of stylized bloodshed set to music by ’60s pop crooner Englebert Humperdinck. With a John Woo-esque balletic grace, Tangerine and Lemon blast men off platforms with shotguns, run over people with cars, and light up one group of thugs around a poker table with machine-gun fire. Another unlucky thug group becomes intimately familiar with the duo’s samurai swordsmanship.
The reel concludes with Pitt — who did his own stunts for Bullet Train — attempting to escape with the briefcase, only to encounter a bad motherfucker played by Bad Bunny as the train door opens. With a murderous glint in his eye, the multiplatinum-selling Puerto Rican trap rapper (who also showed up in person at the Sony panel Monday, where it was revealed that he’ll be playing El Muerto, a character touted at CinemaCon as the “first Latino character to lead a Marvel live-action film”) attempts to drive a hunting knife through Pitt’s sternum, though a conveniently placed cell phone saves him. From there, the two engage in a knockdown, drag-out punch-up in the train’s bar car with Ladybug expertly using the case to both block and attack his mystery assailant. “You tried to stab me?!” Ladybug exclaims. “I don’t even know you!”