There’s a lot of snobbery about a certain kind of action thriller that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Bullet Train has only been out for a day and already there are criticisms about the tone, and it’s derivative nature, specifically in reference to Quentin Tarantino. The influence of the Pulp Fiction director can obviously never be overstated, but it’s reaching a point where any pop culture reference in a film is characterised as stealing from Tarantino, and while the irreverent, bolshy nature of Bullet Train will inevitably rub some people up the wrong way, yet it possesses merits and is a lot of fun.
David Leitch’s latest film mixes the wry irreverence of Deadpool 2 with the neon-drenched fight choreography of John Wick. It’s been compared to the dire Smokin’ Aces, and on a superficial level you can see the similarities, but Bullet Train is an altogether more likeable film. At least once it gets past the endless title cards for the characters, casual hyperviolence and choppy flashback sequences, all of which scream “this is cool!” before anything has actually happened. It’s overwhelming but thankfully Leitch reins the smugness in once the plot begins in earnest, with a refreshingly self-effacing sense of humour, with some offbeat fight sequences and charming performances. It bears much more resemblance to Takashi Miike’s First Love, Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire and the similarly smug but still quite good Lucky Number Slevin.
Brad Pitt plays Ladybug, a mercenary trying to get out of the assassin lifestyle. For his final job he just needs to retrieve a suitcase from the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s a simple enough job, but there’s a catch. Also on the train are several rival hitmen, all after the same suitcase – from the cockney brothers Lemon and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), to a mysterious assassin known only as The Hornet.
Pitt plays his character as a hapless idiot, which is fun but strains credulity a little – he essentially feels like an older version of his stoner character from True Romance, fortunately emerging relatively unscathed from endless lethal situations. Taylor-Johnson and Henry take some getting used to as the British hitmen (as does Henry’s accent) and it sometimes feels like their scenes are aiming for In Bruges, but landing on sub-Guy Ritchie. However they have great chemistry together and a surprising amount of pathos. The Thomas The Tank Engine riff might grate on some, but as someone whose son watches it constantly, Henry’s summation of the characters rang true to me!
Meanwhile, Joey King stands out for all the wrong reasons as an obvious rip-off / homage to KickAss‘ Hit-Girl. Her mannered performance and English accent leave a lot to be desired, as does the films insistence that she’s “cool” Despite this, there’s a fun (if unintentional) little in-joke where for all her cocksure bravado, whenever it matters other characters see right through her, with Pitt even commenting “The narcissism of this girl!“
There are some surprisingly quick exits, some of which are refreshingly abrupt, others more poignant, and some just frustrating, especially the relegation of Karen Fukuhara and Masi Oki to little more than background performers. Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji are great in their roles, (giving the film’s most humane performances) but you would hope that a film set in Japan would have a bit more Japanese representation in the principle cast. There are also a couple of surprise cameos from stars so ubiquitous that I don’t even need to mention their names – I guarantee you are already thinking of them.
As befitting the director of John Wick and Atomic Blonde, the whole film looks incredible, vividly shot with neon lighting, and while the fight sequences are often obscured by the choppy editing, the violence is visceral and shocking, with some uniquely off-kilter choreography that utilises every aspect of the cramped setting, from the quiet coach to the snacks trolley.
Packed with twists and surprises that largely feel earned and unforced, it’s only when Leitch starts musing on fate and karma, that he loses his grip a little. There is no depth here, which isn’t a problem until the film pretends there is. No matter how much gravitas Hiroyuki Sanada brings to the philosophical dialogue, it doesn’t bear any scrutiny.
Bullet Train is unlikely to going to appear on anyone’s “best of 2022” lists, but it’s well shot, with witty, funny performances from a game cast and fun, interesting fight sequences. It genuinely surprised me in places and made me laugh in others. What more can you really ask for?
Bullet Train is out now in UK cinemas nationwide