I need to be very clear: I wanted to absolutely adore “Bullet Train.” From the get go, it looked as though it was comprised of everything I love about over the top action assassin thrillers. All star cast, enclosed location, red herring thingamajig everyone is after, and a nice blend of comedy and action. I’m not here to say the film does not have any if not all of those things, because it most certainly does. It’s got the cast, it’s got the location, and it’s got action and comedy to spare. And yet for some reason, I left the theater wanting, with another reminder that pretty people punching things isn’t enough to excel in specific genres. It’s not quite “The Gray Man,” but it’s also not “John Wick” or “Deadpool 2;” all of which it’s kind of trying to be but ultimately doesn’t do enough to be remembered as fondly as the aforementioned films. “Bullet Train” has all the cast and charm of “Smokin’ Aces” but all the messiness and pointlessness of “Smokin’ Aces 2.”
Yes, there is a sequel. Yes, I own it. No, I don’t know why or how I acquired it. I just know that it exists in the back of my massive DVD collection, only to serve as a reminder of my poor spending choices in my college years. But back to “Bullet Train.”
Directed by David Leitch (“John Wick,” “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2“) with screenplay by newcomer Zak Olkewicz who adapts the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” by Kotaro Isaka, “Bullet Train” tells the story of semi reformed assassin Ladybug (Brad Pitt) who is hoping to retire from the life and pursue one of peace. He is coaxed by his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) for one last job; to retrieve a brief case and exit the train with it. Everything about the job should be a simple snatch and grab, but of course things aren’t what they seem. The train is quickly populated by a conglomerate of fellow assassins all charged with retrieving the case for their own jobs and reasons. As things escalate, Ladybug soon realizes that this will not be a peaceful ride on a train through Japan, and he will have to fight for his life to unravel the mystery of the job itself.
If this all sounds wildly familiar, that’s because well, it is. “Bullet Train” is highly derivative and struggles to feel original and organic, and were it not for a stellar, charming cast giving everything they have to just about every role, the film would exist without an identity of its own. This isn’t that big of a knock on a film that seems to relish in that very space, but it doesn’t quite nail the execution of setting itself apart as a memorable assassin romp in a sea of assassin romps. This film wants so much to be so many things, and ends up being far messier and pointless then I think anyone involved had hoped for. There’s a good 4 or 5 movies happening here all at once, and if it felt more organic than forced it would probably be able to overcome these narrative hurdles. It is fun in all the ways you want it to be, but it isn’t quite fun enough to completely overlook the films major storytelling shortcomings. The more the mystery unfolds, the more convoluted and unnecessary it all seems, leaving you feeling bit empty when everything finally comes to end.
While Brad Pitt is as charming as ever and absolutely shines on screen as a reluctant but effective assassin, the true standouts are Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry as killer brother/duo Lemon and Tangerine. We actually spend quite a bit of time with the assassin duo, and “Bullet Train” would almost be better served to just make the entire film about the two of them. Frankly, it almost feels like the film was supposed to be about them, but at the last minute they snagged Pitt and changed the entire focus. Johnson and Henry are absolutely delightful, and if there was ever to be a spin off (which due to the world we live in has probably already been greenlit because the film more than a dollar at the box office which of course signals franchise opportunities, unless of course you’re Warner Brothers in which case you just scrap whatever you’ve got finished for tax write offs) it should be these two. Their banter is fantastic, and their little quirks and character traits come through more than most. That’s saying a lot considering the film also includes Joey King, Andrew Koji, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beets, Logan Lerman and more in a little more than cameo roles.
The cast is vast but ultimately wasted, because “Bullet Train” is never quite sure what it all means or why it exists. It never really knows what to do with its ever sprawling cast, just that it wants them in the film for something and ultimately decides that their purpose is purely motivated by just having them in the film. By the time we get to the third act, the plot has become so overly complex and disjointed that I wasn’t quite sure what this film was suppose to be about in the first place. There is something to be said about simplicity in ambition, and the film would be better served if it kept the narrative simple and straightforward and let the cast do what they want to fill in the plot gaps. The film wants to be a tongue in cheek action comedy with a backbone of gritty storytelling, and as much as it borrows from everything before it, it seems to take the wrong things to make a strong, complete film.
It is a fast ride the ends up going nowhere, and despite some shining moments and seemingly easy set up, it never quite comes together to be the purposeful or subversive tongue in cheek thrill ride it desperately wants to be. It just ends up feeling like everything else we’ve seen before, and while that isn’t always a bad thing, it is most certainly a disappointing thing here. Especially when there is so much more “Bullet Train” could do if it scaled itself down and focused on being one thing instead of trying to be everything.
We shouldn’t have to sift through a messy story to find enjoyment in something that should be nothing but surface level thrills. The longer it goes on, the deeper it wants us to go and that just simply isn’t why we signed up for “Bullet Train.” We came for the jokes and assassins, and while the film does its best to provide those offerings, it loses its way the longer it tries to build a world around a moving train.
Of course, you know that I’m a stickler for film length, and as much as I’d like to say the film has an appropriate run time, it far exceeds the length with which the narrative actually supports. Something like “Bullet Train” should be a taut 90 minutes tops, instead it crosses the two hour mark to some exhausting and unnecessary lengths. This is a “Smokin’ Aces/Cop Shop” knockoff, not a “Lord of the Rings” fantasy epic. There is simply not enough material to support a 2 hour and 6 minute run time. And even if there was, the film decides to focus on the wrong things that don’t quite add up to a fully realized idea.
My words for “Bullet Train” probably sound way harsher than I mean them, because I did have a good time watching it. but I don’t know that I can justify a big box office, theatrical release. The film would be right at home in the Netflix catalog of too big of a budget but easily consumable slate of films with a high profile cast and forgettable viewing experience.
It isn’t bad, but it isn’t nearly as good as it should be.
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
“Bullet Train” is currently in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.