Slick action films are made to be broken. Just look at David Leitch’s latest, “Bullet Train.”
A film many will likely go in wondering what’s it all about after watching the preview, it concerns a bevy of killers (including Brad Pitt’s returning Zen master wannabe) who all get stuck on a train with the objective being the retrieval of a shiny briefcase. Suffice to say, heads will roll, fights will occur, and bullets will drop between the likes of twin brothers Peach and Tangerine (a hilarious Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the silent yet deadly Prince (Joey King). Little of it will make sense, everyone looks amazing, and the action sequences are minor league John Wick foreplay.
Honestly for the first two thirds of the movie, Leitch’s flick (with a script from Zak Olkewicz) gets by on its looks and kinetic dialogue, which borrows a page from the Guy Ritchie library of fast-talking Brits who know how to start an endless conversation. The pacing is nice and you don’t feel like a weight has been placed on your day. Pitt’s Ladybug (called that due to his effortless survival abilities) is being instructed by a voice on the phone who sounds very much like Sandra Bullock to grab the previously mentioned case and get off the train. Of course, we know that’s not happening because there’d be no movie without character stupidity.
“Bullet Train” gets too crowded with characters and bogged down in boring honor among thieves’ methodology, robbing it of the quick-talking momentum in its first half. When a story has to start rounding third base and coming together, Leitch’s tale runs off in the other direction. You are never quite sure who to care about or despise, and that hinders the climactic battle where people stop dodging bullets and death. By the time a character called “White Death,” a masked crime lord that we’ve been beaten over the head with deadly stories of his victims, shows up, all I could do was laugh when I saw it was a wildly unhinged Michael Shannon going extra campy.
The talent assembled isn’t the problem; it’s the script that runs out of tricks in the final 30 minutes. Without a person to really get behind, the viewer is left wondering if the “who is left standing” maneuver will work and it doesn’t. Out of all the misfit toys scrambling around the train looking just disheveled enough, Henry and Johnson do the most with what the script gives them. The bickering twin brothers who don’t look like twins yet definitely fight like family become the highlight of a movie. Hearing the actors ad-libbed most of their interactions, including a recurring theme involving Thomas the Train Engine and the reason why someone would be named after a fruit, makes a lot of sense.
The film needed more of that rebellious yet natural energy instead of the “he killed my wife, I’m pissed about that” vengeance diet. What could have been pretty cool ended up being very dull and forgettable. Nobody should go into “Bullet Train” hoping to leave with enlightenment or a new look on film, but it should have been better than this.
My advice would be to skip this and watch Leitch’s “Hobbs and Shaw” adventure instead. That was big, loud, dumb, and very funny. It also knew what it was, prescribed to take the mind off meaningful things. “Bullet Train” doesn’t really know what it wants to be, and that’s its biggest weakness.
(Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group)