Bullet Train feels a bit like Murder On The Orient Express as directed by Guy Ritchie’s cousin. It’s a classic example of a movie with a lot of flair and panache (not to mention an expensive cast) with seemingly no real heart or story to attach it to, so it ends up being this sort of nest of tinsel and free-floating baubles. Initially eye catching, but less interesting the longer you stare at it.
Bullet Train is an action movie set on a train speeding through Japan. Brad Pitt, whom director David Leitch used to stunt double for, plays the main character, of sorts. We meet him as he’s in the midst of an irreverent phone conversation with his faceless handler over his new codename: Ladybug. Why Ladybug? Something about how ladybugs are lucky.
Now, it always strikes me as a bad sign when a movie announces early on that “luck” is going to be a major theme of the story. I don’t have much emotional attachment to the concept of “luck,” and it always feels more like a screenwriter pre-excusing themselves for a dumb thing that’s going to happen later. Don’t blame me! The protagonist is just lucky! Didn’t I tell you that’s his whole thing?
Pitt’s character, it turns out, has been hired to grab a briefcase. That briefcase turns out to be full of ransom money, which is being guarded (not very well, mind you) by two other shadowy operatives, codenamed Lemon and Tangerine, played by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively. We also meet them in the midst of an argument about their codenames. “Lemon, you mean like the fruit?” “Yeah, it’s sophisticated.”
Like virtually every other dialogue scene in Bullet Train, the exchange isn’t funny, per se, but it’s delivered in the rough shape and syntax of a joke-like thing (also, of course like the fruit, what the hell else would “lemon” and “tangerine” refer to?). I have nothing against verbose, irreverent dialogue in action movies, which has worked well in plenty of them for generations, from Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid through Tarantino and Guy Ritchie and even to a certain degree in Leitch’s 2018 effort, Deadpool 2.
It’s not the tone that’s the issue in Bullet Train, it’s that there’s only tone. Its characters exist almost entirely as tone-delivery systems, and that tone doesn’t differ much from character to character. Brian Tyree Henry’s Lemon talks about Thomas the Tank Engine a lot and Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is on some sort of self-help trip, but for the most part they’re all exactly the same level, cadence, and flavor of smart-alecky. Which makes them feel more like a series of sock puppets than separate humans. Or maybe that’s just me overthinking the basic fact that the majority of Bullet Train‘s jokes just don’t really land. At best you want to give them credit for trying so hard.
Bullet Train‘s characters don’t have motivations so much as jobs and titles. Ladybug has to get the briefcase for his boss (unnamed), which Lemon and Tangerine don’t want because they need it to appease their boss — a mysterious Russian leader of the Yakuza known as The White Death. Who is the White Death? Don’t worry, there will be a lengthy, stylized flashback to explain that one. What Bullet Train lacks in characters it tries to make up for in LORE.
Leitch co-directed John Wick, but Bullet Train feels more like John Wick 2, when, tasked with trying to recreate a rather straightforward revenge movie, Chad Stehelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad went miles deep into previously unexplored John Wick lore. That was understandable and probably borne out of necessity, but the trouble with Bullet Train is that it spends so much time on lore and backstory that there’s barely any room for the actual story. How many minutes of screen time did we need to spend on characters arguing about their own names?
Sure, the characters fight a lot (it is an action movie directed by a stunt guy, after all), and the fight work is consistently above average and sporadically funny, but they spend so much time talking about why they’re fighting, and whether they should fight that Bullet Train often times feels more like a yak-fest than an action movie. And screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapting from a book by Kôtarô Isaka) does not have Tarantino or even Guy Ritchie’s flair for banter, though he sure seems to like Thomas the Tank Engine a lot. Which isn’t necessarily interesting, but is certainly a choice.
Bullet Train‘s biggest innovation, which it uses over and over again, is to throw major stars at minor roles revealed late in the film. Almost like they’re doing the Marvel thing without the comic book IP. Instead of the audience saying, “Hey, look, it’s Bucky Barnes!” they can say “Hey look, it’s [FAMOUS ACTOR WHOSE APPEARANCE NOW CONSTITUTES A SPOILER]!”
In either case, it’s an attempt to substitute the joy of actually being invested in a story with the joy of recognizing a thing you know from somewhere else. Par for the course for Bullet Train, which is more a collection of things than a thing in its own right.