David Leitch began his film career as a stunt performer and fight coordinator, so perhaps it’s no great surprise this his films as a director focus primarily on action. I must confess to having a soft spot for his earlier offering, Atomic Blonde, which cast Charlize Theron as a kick-ass secret agent. But Bullet Train is a much more ambitious vehicle (please forgive the unintentional pun). In this film, a large cast of actors climb aboard the titular locomotive and proceed to kick several kinds of shit out of each other.
Brad Pitt is ‘Ladybug’, a former professional assassin, now attempting to pursue a more gentle method of employment and refusing to take a gun along with him. He’s on a mission to locate and steal a mysterious metal suitcase containing large amounts of money and he’s somewhat dismayed to discover that there are a whole bunch of other assassins on board – and they have no qualms about using firearms. What’s more, they’ve mistaken Ladybug for another operative, a man who they’ve been told to kill on sight. Awkward.
The characters all have equally silly code names, and Leitch – who also wrote the screenplay – has assigned them various quirks in a valiant attempt to humanise them. For instance, ‘Prince’ (Joey King) acts like an innocent teenage girl, complete with novelty backpack. ‘Tangerine’ (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) supports Chelsea football club, while his brother, ‘Lemon’ (Brian Tyree Henry), is a fan of Thomas the Tank Engine… This is all well and good but none of it helps me warm to them. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I find it hard to care what happens to a bunch of killers. We’re expected to cheer for Pitt, who – conveniently – only offs people who are trying to kill him, but that’s not enough.
Furthermore, the story is so needlessly complicated, it requires a whole load of flashbacks and explanatory side notes in order for it to make any sense to an audience. Okay, the action scenes (and that’s probably seventy percent of the film) are expertly handled, and yes, it does all build to an impressive hyper-violent apotheosis with the climactic punch up taking place on an out of control train hurtling to destruction – but I still need to care about these people and I really don’t. Maybe a more straightforward plot line and a shorter running time would have helped. Bullet Train weighs in at nearly two hours despite running at 275 miles per hour.
Incidentally, because of limited time availability, I watch this film in a Screen X, which claims to offer a ‘more immersive experience.’ This means that selected scenes are projected onto the walls to the left and right of the main screen. I just find this kind of distracting.
Oh yes, sharper-eyed viewers may spot some ‘blink and you’ll miss ’em’ guest appearances hidden in this film. Look out for them. It’ll help to pass the journey.