Just because a particular genre is back in style doesn’t mean it’s having a golden age. The success of John Wick – itself coming off the back of the now-forgotten trend for eurotrash thrillers featuring stars past their prime that provided us with Liam Neeson’s recent career – has given audiences a lot of extremely violent films where a snarky style has been almost as important as the body count.
There’s been the occasional winner (Nobody), a lot of quickly forgotten fizzles (Gunpowder Milkshake, Jolt, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, every single action movie made for Netflix), and a growing realisation that what was once an exciting break from the norm is now just another collection of tired genre cliches. It’s a rut that can’t be escaped simply by piling on quirky details; like pretty much everything that runs on rails, it’s obvious from the start where Bullet Train is heading.
Going by the passenger list, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a concession discount for assassins on the Tokyo to Kyoto bullet train. Top of the bad guy list are cockney thugs Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Thomas the Tank Engine fan Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are cashed up and heading back to base after having rescued a mobster’s son (the cash is the ransom they didn’t have to pay).
Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is on board to snatch the cash, which is a pretty basic job for a man of his abilities but after a recent run of bad luck he needs to ease his way back into the world of flamboyant gangster crime. With his bucket hat and new focus on non-violent conflict resolution, Ladybug – a codename given to him by his handler (a cameo from Sandra Bullock) – is a laid-back dude with a mellow outlook, making him an increasingly odd fit for this particular line of work.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the passengers, which include but are not limited to The Prince (Joey King), a schoolgirl assassin straight out of numerous manga fantasies; undercover poisons expert The Hornet (Zazie Beetz); The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), on board to avenge the deaths of pretty much everyone at his wedding; and the westerner known as White Death (another fun cameo) who’s taken over a yakuza family presumably so he’ll have an inexhaustible supply of henchmen to throw at his opponents.
There’s also a killer python on the loose. Finally, a chance to make a Snakes on a Train joke.
Director David Leitch co-directed the first John Wick before moving onto Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw, which isn’t exactly the career arc of someone getting better with every project. With its colourful but two-dimensional cast and constant flashbacks alongside shock reveals, this surprisingly talky film comes off as a salute-to-slash-knockoff of Guy Ritchie’s early work and the legions of Tarantino imitators that flooded cinemas in the 90s, only with a more flamboyant approach to murder.
There’s a decent amount of action between the chit chat, though outside of the flashbacks the need for the combatants to keep it low-key on the train often confines things to brief bursts of inventive violence (briefcases: good for both attack and defence) and brutal deaths rather than epic scenes of slaughter. It’s all showy enough, though there’s little here that’s memorable; Leitch’s slam-bang drawn out epic one-take battle sequence at the heart of Atomic Blonde seems very far away.
Worse, like most of the recent crop of action films, the need to keep things at an ironic distance (or just the inability to create characters we can invest in) has the stakes at close to zero. Stylish violence in a cartoony gangster world is a recipe for casual engagement at best. Unless that kind of story is being told by a director where style is the whole point, there’s no point
Or at least, that would be the case if not for Brad Pitt. He’s the reason you’re reading this, and why this is in cinemas and not going straight-to-streaming. He’s in goofy mode here, showing off a crowd-pleasing side that stretches all the way back to when he stole the back half of True Romance without ever getting off the couch.
Bullet Train is so busy throwing everything else at the audience – there’s even more surprise cameos than you might expect, though the biggest surprise isn’t really a surprise at all – that it occasionally almost forgets the real secret weapon here is Pitt. His laid-back approach is fun, charming, and seems to have come from another film entirely; no matter how flashy the murders, it’s hard not to occasionally wish we’d boarded a train heading that way instead.
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Zak Olkewicz
Starring: Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Bad Bunny, Zazie Beetz, Joey King, Michael Shannon
Distributor: Sony Pictures
126 minutes, MA 15+
In cinemas now.