Bullet Train feels like someone crossbred Kill Bill with a Final Destination movie. And at times, David Leitch’s film is almost as glorious as that description makes it sound — elaborate and ridiculous but dedicated to making the elaborate and the ridiculous feel … well, not plausible, exactly, but certainly compelling and fun. Not to mention the film’s conviction that there is no level of baroque narrative digression a modern audience will not tolerate. I took something like 50 pages of notes, and I still feel like I caught about half of what happened.
To describe the plot of Bullet Train in any detail would send one down more than a dozen wormholes, but ultimately it’s all kind of the same thing, so here’s a general outline: The action takes place on a train speeding from Tokyo to Morioka on which a number of criminals have converged. Distraught gangster Kimura (Andrew Koji) is there to track down (and presumably kill) whoever recently pushed his young son off a roof. Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), known together as the Twins, are there to deliver to a mysterious and all-powerful Russian gangster his deadbeat son (Logan Lerman) and a briefcase full of money. There is the Prince (Joey King), a stuck-up teenage girl with some mysterious murderous plans of her own. There’s the Wolf (Bad Bunny), a Mexican assassin whose whole world was wiped out when someone poisoned the wine at his wedding; naturally, he, too, is out for revenge. Then there’s Brad Pitt’s Ladybug (that’s a code name), who has been hired to snatch and grab the aforementioned briefcase with zero idea of what’s in it, who he’s stealing it from, or to whom it ultimately belongs. There’s also a deadly snake on the loose. And a big bouncing pink mascot for a popular children’s show. There is … well, there’s more, but I’ve probably already said too much.
Not unlike a Quentin Tarantino film (and not unlike any number of Tarantino imitators that populated movie screens in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including some of Guy Ritchie’s early work), Bullet Train constantly leaps back in time — sometimes plunging into full-bore narrative digressions, sometimes skipping across brief flashbacks — to situate us in the present and explain various motivations and backstories. But whereas Tarantino uses such time-jumps to create more absorbing stories and add depth to his characters, for director Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz, adapting Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel, these flashbacks are as much stylistic elements as they are narrative devices. They don’t explain so much as create a uniquely poppy dubstep rhythm to the film, as striking in its own way as the syncopated smashing, punching, kicking, and bouncing of the fight scenes.
And very often what determines the outcome of a scene is not skill or purpose but sheer chance and fate, working in all the Rube Goldberg ways that fate seems to work in movies. Ladybug laments his desperate bad luck, but of course, we get to see just how incredibly lucky he actually is. Not unlike the aforementioned Final Destination pictures, there is nothing particularly organic in this movie. It’s all manipulation and extended cinematic sleight of hand, but the film embraces its absurdly colorful, noisy, gonzo artificiality. It doesn’t take itself seriously, which helps a lot. It’s not afraid to let you simply enjoy it.
Plus it’s expertly made. To choreograph all this, both on a story level and an action-design level, and to make it make any kind of sense is a fairly impressive feat. Director Leitch, a veteran stunt coordinator who co-directed the first John Wick movie and then went on to pictures like Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, understands how to stage creative action scenes, and he makes fine use of the train’s geography and design elements in his fights — everything from fixed tray tables to seatbelts to snack compartments to catering carts. One marvelous beatdown takes place in the train’s quiet car, and it’s filled with muffled gun-grabbing, throat-punching, and window-slamming, all of it punctuated with an occasional angry “shhh” from an annoyed passenger. It’s the sort of thing that will work wonderfully if you’re on its wavelength — and boy, was I — but will surely drive you crazy if you’re not into it. The brazen intricacy is the point, taking precedence over realism or narrative purpose. Bullet Train carries you along through sheer verve and audacity.
Through it all, some ideas do emerge, hazily and lightly. Everybody on the train is there, in some ways, because family led them there. Some are there to avenge their loved ones, some to kill them. Some are there because they are family. All of the film’s coincidences, in other words, start to look like they were actually fated. And the only person there without any real connections, Ladybug himself, is also the one who seems the most adrift. He’s been reevaluating his violent ways and is nowadays more interested in conflict resolution than he is in shooting people. That makes for a few funny lines, but it also presents us with a character whose unmoored quality allows him, at least for a significant portion of the film, to survive. It’s clever casting, to be sure, leaning into the hippie-dippie, happy-go-lucky side of Pitt’s persona. There’s also a moving conflict here between a world of duty and responsibility and a world free of attachments. And amid all the shooting and slicing and punching and stabbing, we can almost make out the contours of an interesting philosophical question: Is it better to care and die or to have nothing to live for and survive? But then someone’s head accidentally blows up or they suddenly get run over by a truck, and it’s on to the next thing.
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