Bullet Train – Film Review

Riding on the Bullet Train from Tokyo to Kyoto is an exciting addition to any sightseeing tour within Japan. The trains are sleek, efficient, high speed and futuristic and are very fitting as a central character in David Leitch’s latest film aptly named Bullet Train. Leitch’s thrilling action-packed direction aboard the train reflects the high paced movement of the train but at times struggles to keep up with the momentum preferring to chug along. Still, it is an entertaining, exciting ride hurtling through train carriages as the setting for the latest (peaceful) mission of the assassin Ladybug, played by Brad Pitt, with genuine laugh out loud moments and unexpected cameos.

Based on the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, which was later translated in to English as Bullet Train, Bullet Train follows the Tarantino style of Asian inspired filmmaking, such as Kill Bill, with obvious nods to kung fu films and samurai sword fights. When the action truly develops after a languishing start, Bullet Train equally borrows from Tarantino’s penchant for gratuitous but comedic scenes of violence. Whilst some of these scenes may represent a homage to the Japanese source material, the fact that they amplify some of the existing stereotypes held by the Western world concerning Japanese culture does seem lazy.

As such, there are scenes with neon drenched Tokyo streets, in the moments filmed outside of the train and animé figures within the train. Equally, there is the re-hashing of stereotypical character types explored in other films with a long-suffering Japanese tortured soul of a hero, almost resembling Ryu or Ken from the Streetfighter arcade games after some combat, and, of course, John Wick, with glistening skin and damp hair. The typical wise elder delivering profound words and evocative philosophies also makes an appearance. These characters may be symbolic within the original Japanese novel but in a Westernised film, which dilutes most of these Japanese qualities, there are additional unintended connotations which may feel uncomfortable.

Brad Pitt as Ladybug in Bullet Train
Brad Pitt as Ladybug in Bullet Train

This notion of life philosophies pervades Bullet Train with the concept of luck, good or bad, mentioned from the outset. Ladybug believes that he is the harbinger of bad luck and other characters are told that fate will do what it will and can or cannot be controlled. Unfortunately, these concepts are not expanded upon beyond casual references and therefore Bullet Train lacks substance and will not appeal to everyone. The funniest philosophy of all within the film connects to the train setting with Thomas the Tank engine metaphors uttered producing several in jokes.

Bullet train struggles with these tonal shifts as it attempts to straddle being slapstick in nature and a film embedded with traditional Japanese philosophies. The result is that it is utterly silly and comedic for the most part, in mocking many action films that came before it with slow motion fight sequences, which produces some stand out performances. Pitt demonstrates his range with deadpan humour as his character aims to avoid gun fighting conflict preferring to throw toilet rolls and water bottles instead. Other characters on the train are introduced by title cards in both English and Japanese again resembling the structure of those historic kung fu films.

The dynamic duo of Tangerine and Lemon played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry make Bullet Train worthwhile viewing when it starts to limp due to the bloatedness of the film’s direction of the disparate sequences combined with inconsistent pacing. The chemistry between Taylor-Johnson and Tyree Henry also carries the film in their roles as another set of assassins on the train on a mission. Tyree Henry is in his element with his amusing take on life’s philosophies and delivers an impressive comedic turn.

Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Bullet Train
Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Bullet Train

Predictable as it may be, Bullet Train joins the established pathway of films based on trains such as Murder on the Orient Express and Snowpiercer in celebrating the strength of its ensemble. Ladybug may be the central character, but Tangerine and Lemon are given ample screen time for audiences to appreciate their camaraderie and resonate with them as an unlikely pair of assassins.

Bullet Train is an entertaining high-octane thriller elevated by the standout performances mentioned. Despite there being a sense of déjà vu, which the film knowingly embraces with its hierarchy of villains, the film’s sheer comedic audacity will catapult it into being one of the fun, talked about summer blockbusters of the year although it is a tad overlong. Plus, Bullet Train has an outstanding musical score and soundtrack which is guaranteed to be memorable to audiences taken along the film’s hilarious journey.

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