Producers: Kelly McCormick, David Leitch and Antoine Fuqua Director: David Leitch Screenplay: Zak Olkewicz Cast: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martínez Ocasio, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Masi Oka, Karen Fukuhara and Sandra Bullock Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
The Bullet Train is mostly empty during David Leitch’s two-hour trip on it, and so is the movie—an overblown orgy of kinetic action and juvenile humor that’s intricately designed while having nary a thought in its stylishly vacant head.
With a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz based on the 2021 novel “Maria Beetle” by Kōtarō Isaka, the movie is like the old MAD Magazine “Spy Vs. Spy” strip not just squared but tripled, quadrupled, quintupled and more. It’s about a bunch of assassins collected on Japan’s sleek, speedy train, all concentrating on targeting one another or trying to find the story’s MacGuffin—a briefcase filled with money. The cash was to pay a ransom for the son (Logan Lerman) of a malevolent crime lord called The White Death (Michael Shannon). But apparently it, and he, have been rescued by a pair of Brit hit-men, bickering “brothers” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are on the train to the Kyoto stop where they’ll meet The White Death and his army of masked killers.
But another assassin, laid-back American Ladybug (Brad Pitt), who’s apparently coming off some sort of hiatus, has been assigned by his handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock) to board the train and get the briefcase. Though he considers himself unlucky, he finds it immediately, in a pile of luggage where Lemon, not the brightest bulb in the pack (he says that all he needs to know he learned from “Tommy the Tank Engine”), has unwisely put it.
Meanwhile, alcoholic Japanese assassin Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji) is understandably distraught because some villain has tossed his son off the roof of a building and now threatens to have the hospitalized boy killed unless he boards the train too. His father, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), who suffered grave losses in gang wars involving The White Death years ago, is disappointed by his son’s situation but determined to protect his grandson.
The villain forcing Yuichi to do her bidding turns out to be The Prince (Joey King), a British schoolgirl on the train who uses her apparently innocent appearance to her advantage, except when she can simply order others about or kill them. Two other assassins come aboard to accomplish their own agendas. One is a flashy Mexican nicknamed The Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny), who’s out to avenge the poisoning of his wife and the guests at their wedding reception, and the other is Hornet (Zazie Beetz), a German out to recover a poisonous snake she stole from a zoo that’s now loose on the train. (Yes, the picture might have been called “Snake on a Train,” if the title did not call another bad movie to mind.)
The two-hour-plus running time is mostly devoted to these characters having at one another as the train speeds along to Kyoto; there are numerous hand-to-hand fights, choreographed by Leitch, an expert stuntman himself, with practiced skill and shot and edited with similar dexterity by Jonathan Sela and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, respectively. But scattered throughout are flashbacks designed to provide zippy background information and suggest connections to be made later. The garish production design by David Scheunemann and ostentatious costumes by Sarah Evelyn (which include a bucket hat for Pitt) add to the visual pizzazz, as do the effects supervised by Michael Brazelton. An energetic score by Dominic Lewis completes a flashy technical package.
But the plot is a puzzle which, when the big finale explains (rather imperfectly) why all the characters were enticed onto the train, proves not worth the effort of unravelling. That’s particularly the case because the assassins are a group that one tires of quickly; even Pitt’s Ladybug is a one-note fellow, his hangdog repetition of psychological bromides about learning to be nice increasingly tedious (the actor was much more engaging in the supporting role he played in last spring’s “The Lost City”—in which Bullock also appeared), and the frantic effort to make the rest all kooky sends the entire cast into spasms of quirky exaggeration that simply reinforces their stilted wackiness. And the dialogue offers no compensation, consisting largely of quips that are far from clever and expository material that just drags. It turns out that the luckiest of the actors are the ones who are corpses most of the time, even if there are far too many resurrections. There are also a few cameos that do little but pander to viewers by giving them the opportunity to pat themselves on the back for recognizing both the performers and their connection, however forced, to what’s going on here.
The result is a bombastic explosion of glitz, glibness, cartoonish violence and bloated set-pieces that’s simultaneously overstuffed and vacuous. Though visually extravagant, it’s truly a ride to nowhere, with very few interesting stops along the way.