Based on Kōtarō Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle, Bullet Train is the latest release from director David Leitch. Leitch probably made his reputation in the business as the co-director of John Wick, though only Chad Stahelski was credited – hence why we say ‘reputation in the business’ rather than ‘with the public’. Since then, he has gone on to work on the Charlize Theron actioner Atomic Blonde, the sequel Deadpool 2, and the Fast and Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw. Results with all of these have been mixed, but he has marked himself out as adept with action, quick editing, and fast-talking characters.
Bullet Train is set on the eponymous train from Tokyo, with our key characters heading for Kyoto. With none of characters giving their real names, we are introduced to them largely by nicknames or codenames. Brad Pitt plays a hitman with the codename Ladybug, who is standing in for a fellow hitman who has called in sick. As he has had some time away from the job, he is being eased back with a small job to steal a valuable suitcase. That case is in the possession of Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) a pair of London hitmen, ostensibly brothers, despite looking nothing alike.
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Lemon has a Thomas the Tank Engine obsession, though is otherwise a very everyday London criminal, while Tangerine is dripping in gold and calls to mind a used-car salesperson. They are just finishing the job of extracting the kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of a Russian mob boss working in Japan (known as White Death – and, as with Pitt’s largely unseen female handler, Carver, the man Ladybug replaces on the job, and another passenger on the train employed by Pitt to take attention from him, we won’t spoil the identities of some big-name cameos).
Also on the train is the Prince (Joey King, dressed like an English schoolgirl) and the Father (Andrew Koji) – a man extorted onto the train by Prince, who has someone on his critically injured son. We also meet the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), an assassin who employs snake venom in her kills, and has attracted the attention of the Wolf (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio), a Mexican mob boss whose wife was killed by the Hornet on their wedding day. How these characters interact, why they are all on the train at the same time, why they want the case, why so many seemingly unconnected deaths are happening and who is pulling the strings are the main focuses of our story.
Bullet Train walks a fine line between comedy and drama. All of our main characters are competent, but possibly we could describe them as disorganised at times. As the train represents the end of the mission for some of them, it is fair to say that some have let down their guard – in fact, the action starts with Lemon finding the case stolen, as he had stored it with the other luggage, rather than keep it about his person. This leads to plenty of great dialogue, as he argues with his brother over his mistake and, as things start to go wrong, characters are forced to improvise in often hilarious ways.
This is all set against the background of Japanese society, and a people versed in good manners. As such, events occur on a train where behaviour matters. With this in mind, a vicious fight in a quiet carriage, with protagonists trying desperately not to make any noise as they go at each other is a genuine highlight in a film that has many of them.
There are negatives; the decision to go with nicknames only is distancing. Although employed well in films such as Reservoir Dogs, we end up not really feeling anything for any of these people. A man’s son lays critically injured in a hospital, and his murder could be ordered at any time – just do not expect to care particularly.
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The film is also a little too long, at around 126 minutes, and feels like it is heading to natural conclusion around 25 minutes earlier. Although the ending is satisfying, there were a few minutes where it was necessary to reengage with a work that we were expecting to be leaving much time earlier.
That said, Bullet Train is a fast, fun, funny work, sporting excellent action, given its confined environment. Although a light confection that will be forgotten in time, it is a genuine enjoyable time, with not one weak link in the cast, and supported by stylish editing and a great soundtrack.
Bullet Train is out now in cinemas.