David Leitch and Chad Stahelski are responsible for the resurgence of the clean-cut, well-choreographed, stylistically lit, and well-acted action with “John Wick.” Yes, Keanu Reeves deserves a lot of credit for that too. But if it weren’t for Leitch and Stahelski, I shudder to think what Hollywood’s action landscape would’ve looked like. The upside of this paradigm shift is that a standard has been set for hand-to-hand fights, gunplay, and larger, explosive set-pieces. The downside of this is that it has inspired copy-cats who just cannot seem to hit the mark. While Stahelski has limited himself to the “John Wick” franchise, Leitch seems to have, unfortunately, become a self-parody. And while every single sequence in Stahelski’s work has been burnt into our memories, almost nothing from “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2,” and “Hobbs & Shaw” has had a similar effect. “Bullet Train” is no different.
Based on the Japanese novel “Maria Beetle” (which was published in English as “Bullet Train”) by Kōtarō Isaka, “Bullet Train” is directed by David Leitch and written by Zak Olkewicz. It starts with Kimura (Andrew Koji) standing by his son Wataru’s (Kevin Akiyoshi Ching) side, who is in a coma because he was thrown off a building by an assassin. The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), Kimura’s father, essentially accuses him of not looking after his son properly. We cut to Ladybug (Brad Pitt), who is on an assignment that’s given to him by Maria (Sandra Bullock), to get on the titular train, grab a briefcase, and get off at the next stop. That briefcase is the property of the main villain of the movie, White Death (Michael Shannon). And it’s being transported to him by Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), along with the White Death’s son, The Son (Logan Lerman).
Kimura boards the same train searching for the person who tried to kill his son, i.e., Prince (Joey King). Ladybug does secure the briefcase and tries to leave the train, but is stopped by Wolf (Bad Bunny), the boss of a Mexican cartel, who thinks that Ladybug is responsible for the death of his family. Also, aboard the train is The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), who is there for the briefcase. As soon as Ladybug gets the briefcase, he becomes the #1 target for Lemon and Tangerine, as well as all the other assassins who are on the train. And chaos ensues as Ladybug, and the others try to make it out alive before the train reaches Kyoto. Additionally, “Bullet Train” features Masi Oka as the Conductor, Karen Fukuhara as the Kayda Izumi Concession Girl, cameos from Channing Tatum and Ryan Reynolds (as Carver), and a Boomslang snake.
Credit where credit is due, “Bullet Train” is entertaining for the first 45 minutes (the movie is 126 minutes long). Brad Pitt’s whole shtick about being this assassin who doesn’t want to assassinate feels peppy and fresh. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry’s chemistry feels electric. Andrew Koji brings a sense of gravitas to this whole frivolous affair. Joey King’s menacing vibe is reminiscent of Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) from “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” Bad Bunny’s angst is hilariously dark. You can see Leitch and his team having fun visualizing the backstories of the characters. Jonathan Sela’s cinematography is kinetic and vibrant. The way Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir cuts around the present and the past keeps things interesting. And, from start to finish, the production design, art direction, costume design, special effects, and visual effects remain consistently competent. But then the fatigue sets in as the jokes get repetitive, the altercations get uninventive, and the character outlines begin to get stale.
Out of the aforementioned three issues, the one that hurts “Bullet Train” the most is the un-imaginativeness of the action scenes. To be a little more specific, it’s the lack of commitment towards taking the gimmick of a set piece to its extreme that stings. For example (and this is not a spoiler because it’s in the trailer), there’s a fight sequence between Ladybug and Lemon in a “quiet car,” which means they can’t make a sound while fighting. Firstly, you can hear them making so much noise. So, the “rule” doesn’t seem like a rule. Secondly, what are the consequences of making any noise in a quiet car? A lady shushing? That was funny the first time. But when that’s the only stake (the lowest of low stakes), it’s not enjoyable. And thirdly, these problems are reflected in the choreography, as it seems like a random assortment of punches and kicks that have nothing to do with the character’s skill set.
This brings us to the casting. The best of the lot are Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry. There’s no doubt about that. But everyone else is miscast or underused. “Bullet Train” has been criticized for white-washing Japanese roles. The author has defended it by saying that these characters were never that defined. So, the casting department is free to bring anyone from any ethnic background into that role. And since the appeal of every White actor dries out by the end, it’s no big deal. However, what about the sidelining of the only Asian characters in a film set in Japan? How do you take Hiroyuki Sanada, Andrew Koji, and Karen Fukuhara and give them next to nothing? Unless India’s CBFC has tampered with the film, it seems like Leitch just didn’t care about these three amazing stars, both in terms of writing or action. If that is not infuriating as hell, I don’t know what is.
So, “Bullet Train” has an interesting premise, but the execution is very repetitive and, hence, boring. One can say that the premise isn’t supposed to be that serious because the whole point is to bring in big stars and put them in cool action scenes. Well, the action scenes are initially fun, but then they become dull and eventually devolve into VFX-heavy nonsense. Then, does it have anything to say in order to offer a semblance of relevance in this ever-growing pantheon of blockbusters? Yes, and not really. Ladybug, Prince, The Elder, and White Death heavily believe in fate. Ladybug thinks he has very bad luck. The Prince thinks she’s very lucky. The Elder thinks that one must wait for fate to show them their way. The White Death literally plays Russian Roulette to determine his and his enemy’s fate. And they all kind of tackle this idea of how they can control fate or be controlled by it. That’s about as deep as it gets.
“Bullet Train” would’ve easily gotten a pass for being a decent-looking $90 million movie in a landscape that’s filled with so-called action flicks that are over $200 million. But it doesn’t. Because it’s a waste of an interesting premise, it drags after the first act, continues to hit new levels of monotony, and, ironically, never picks up the pace. And the way Hiroyuki Sanada, Andrew Koji, and Karen Fukuhara are used makes me physically shake with anger. Sanada has a brilliant filmography. Koji has shown his brilliance in “Warrior.” Karen is absolutely thriving in “The Boys.” So, Hollywood, if you want to use Asian actors as frivolously as you use Asian settings, please do away with it. White-wash, the entire film, cast some North American actors who think their comedic brand is “dry humor” (I’m talking about Brad Pitt), and save yourself the embarrassment.