bullet train

Director: David Leitch
Writers: Zak Olkewicz
Cast: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Bad Bunny

Bursting with life at every turn, Bullet Train is an uneven but wild ride of a movie that never quite heads where you expect it to, boarded by a group of people in which no one is who they appear to be. Even the title has a cheeky dual meaning — a group of assassins find themselves in the confines of a high-speed train and sure enough, bullets fly. As the characters hop from one compartment to another, the film moves from a comedy to an action-adventure to a philosophical tale of vengeance and grief, of accepting one’s fate vs taking control of it. These gear shifts don’t always mesh smoothly, but the film rolls into its destination with a satisfying flourish.

Based on Kotaro Isaka’s Japanese novel Maria Beetle, Bullet Train is set on an overnight train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto. Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a retired assassin whose stint in therapy has given a Zen-like outlook on life, has been hired to retrieve a briefcase from the train, only to discover he’s not the only hired killer after it. The film juggles its ensemble cast well, with Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson emerging as the standouts. Playing British brothers codenamed Lemon and Tangerine, their banter gives the film its most charming moments and their bond forms its emotional core. The weakest written of the bunch is The Prince, whose uninspired motivation of wanting to succeed in a sexist world isn’t made more convincing by Joey King’s performative ‘aw shucks’ act.

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Misunderstandings, cases of mistaken identity and murderous motives add to the mayhem of Bullet Train. There are frequent cutaways to exterior shots of the train whizzing past the landscape but director David Leitch isn’t really interested in replicating the same urgency inside it. Instead he crafts sequences that prioritise humour over suspense. The efficiency of the Japanese rail system, in which each halt at a station can only last one minute, should be a source of tension-building throughout, but each halt is simply an opportunity for more hijinks. The film begins as a heist movie — a genre reliant on snappy timing — but soon enough, Bullet Train is more interested in its actors’ comic timing. 

Much of the early portions of the film track the many, many ways the characters’ paths are interconnected, and the comedic framing of their various past interactions doesn’t make them any easier to keep track of. Conversations segue into amusing interludes, such as a flashback to a previous assasination sequence in which the killers break the fourth wall to take stock of their carnage, and a televised broadcast about a deadly snake. Trademarks of Leitch’s style make an appearance, such as neon-lit interiors, onscreen text that appears in bright font and slick needledrops, which include Japanese versions of the Bee Gee’s ‘Stayin Alive’ and Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out For A Hero’. 

There’s a lot of style, but the near-overwhelming amount of backstory and character motivations make for too much substance too. While the film steadily ups its stakes — a bounty of $10 million dollars, an escaped snake, a growing pile of bodies — its momentum really comes from the tangled web of interactions between the characters. 

Throughout his filmography, Leitch has taken characters whose professions require them to remain unknowable blank slates — spies, assassins, double agents — and imbued them with personality. Take John Wick (2014), on which he was an uncredited co-director with Chad Stahelski. Keanu Reeves’s bottomless grief speaks to the innate humanity of an assassin who’s convinced he’s lost his last tether to it. In Atomic Blonde (2017), the icy coolness of Charlize Theron’s agent steadies a film that spins out dizzyingly into a series of plot twists by the end. Leitch brings this warmth for cold-blooded killers to Bullet Train too, backed by a cast that elevates their characters to more than just an assortment of quirks. Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada bring an understated dignity to their parts, balancing out the film’s big comedic swings.

Leitch’s experience as a stuntman has resulted in a director who knows that battles leave their scars. The protagonists of John Wick and Atomic Blonde get visibly bruised. Their bones snap, they spit out blood. They need to stop and reload their guns several times. They take prescription pain medication. While every blow in Bullet Train is strikingly choreographed, the action sequences aren’t as brutal and frenzied. Most of the fights in the film are opportunities for physical comedy rather than displays of power. One such sequence follows characters navigating social etiquette while having to land loud punches inside a designated ‘quiet car’. Action movies set at a single location are an invitation to utilise every square inch of space effectively. Bullet Train doesn’t navigate the cramped quarters of a train to full effect but does make smart use of props. A stuffed teddy bear is used as a silencer. A seatbelt is a handy way to strangle an enemy. Even a pair of chopsticks are a deadly weapon in Leitch’s hands. 

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Still, it’s only towards the end that the film becomes really propulsive even if it begins to veer off the rails simultaneously. Small moments pay off in major ways. Writer Zak Olkewicz manages to deftly layer in many larger mysteries and multiple revelations. The film’s cheeky sense of humour isn’t as grating as Leitch’s previous film Hobbs & Shaw (2019), a script fed through a cliché generator, but comes close, especially as the more heartfelt tone is undercut by a series of quips. Ladybug’s habit of spouting wisdom that sounds like it came from the inside of a fortune cookie, wears thin. At two hours 16 minutes, there are points at which Bullet Train overstays its welcome, but the journey remains an entertaining ride nonetheless. 

Bullet Train releases in theatres on August 4.

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