What happens when you toss five incongruously aliased assassins, two vengeance-seeking fathers, one sociopathic manipulator, one surprisingly-cast crime boss, and 30,000 self-referential one-liners onto a speeding train? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Initial critical returns for the new action comedy Bullet Train have not been kind, and understandably so. There’s something artificial and unsettlingly familiar about the film’s coke-addled, Guy Richie-but-with-a-Twitter-addiction sense of humor. It’s hard to argue with a reading of the film that renders it as little more than David Leitch metatextually self-hi-fiving for two hours when a healthy amount of joke real estate is devoted to inverted cameos from his prior filmography. It’s similarly challenging to wholeheartedly rebut anyone who writes the movie off as a diet-John Wick knockoff overcompensating for its lack of compelling action with flailing allusions to the humor de jour of an attention-span-rotted generation.
And yet—broader implications about the state of action comedy aside, Bullet Train is better than the wrap it’s getting. From the so-talented-you-wonder-how-they-were-tricked-into-signing-on cast to its above-average “what sticks” ratio for its throw-everything-at-the-wall-to-see comedic approach, Bullet Train elevates above its well-past-played-out schtick and provides two overstuffed hours of charisma, clever bits, and some decently solid setpieces. Here’s a handful of the highlights:
—WARNING: SUBSTANTIAL BULLET TRAIN SPOILERS BELOW, READER BEWARE—
1. You Get What You Pay For
Bullet Train easily could have been (and perhaps even was) a “one for them” paycheck job for its dramatically overqualified cast, which includes two oscar winners, multiple Emmy, Oscar, and Grammy nominees, and a who’s-who of the best under-celebrated actors in the game. But the level of dedication each actor brings to their character belies a deeper commitment, one that enlivens their otherwise haphazardly constructed idiosyncrasies.
Thanks to Brian Tyree Henry, we leave Bullet Train believing there is a true profundity to Thomas the Tank Engine, one that pulls back the curtain on human nature. Ladybug (Brad Pitt’s reticent snatch and grab protagonist) demonstrates a dedication to his therapeutic process in a way that appears far more genuine than its punchline would require. Joey King’s Prince seems truly tormented by the cyclone of neglect and narcissism that created her, even as her behavior spins towards caricature.
At times, we movie lovers mistake “the good old days of cinema” for originality of premise or creativity of concept. The reality is that more often than not, a great movie is made by great performers. If more filmmakers are willing to throw bags of money at top-tier actors to chew through the scenery of their B-list action movie, I’m all for it.
2. Brad Pitt, Bespectacled
I’m a simple man of simple tastes and let me tell you, one of those tastes is Brad Pitt wearing the shit out of a pair of dark-rimmed glasses and a bucket hat. Never has another human’s face been so unwilling to conform to the dishevelment put upon it. I mean, seriously, imagine waking up in the morning, deciding to put on this outfit, and knowing that you’ll still somehow end up looking hot:
Many a human has wrecked themselves upon the shores of trying to rock a Pitt ensemble, and if Bullet Train is any indication, many more will continue to do so for years to come.
3. Silent But Deadly
One would hope that David Leitch’s stuntwork background (often as Brad Pitt’s double! Metatext!) and previous unofficial co-directorial experience on John Wick would help to elevate the action in Bullet Train above your standard Jason Statham fare…and it almost does. Sequences like the briefcase/knife fight feature some creative choreography (especially Pitt’s briefcase wielding), and the fight confidence from actors up and down the cast list is there.
Unfortunately, more often than not the camerawork is cut so haphazardly that it’s impossible to appreciate the choreography or its execution.
The prime exception is Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry’s silver-haired half of the Lemon and Tangerine assassin duo) and Ladybug’s quiet car fight sequence. Shot claustrophobically in a four-person booth across a train dining table, the two jab and kick and contort, attempting to leverage the tight quarters to their advantage while also attempting to maintain a ludicrous commitment to the no-noise regulation of their setting. It’s easily the most creative action sequence in the film, and its limited scope forces the camera to remain trained on its subjects for longer takes, leaving space for the action to breathe (and for us to appreciate it fully).
4. Brad Pitt, A Work In Progress
After being shushed repeatedly during the aforementioned sequence by a passenger militantly championing the “quiet car” regulations, Ladybug tells the upper-middle-aged white woman to “eat a bag of dicks”. He then immediately apologizes, saying “I’m sorry, I’m working on it.”
In lesser hands, a lesser joke; but here, with Brad, a wealth of narrative possibility: is Ladybug working on his anger issues in general? Or a specifically uncouth penchant for demanding that people devour a collection of penises? What specific therapeutic process is Ladybug undergoing to unpack and unlearn these tendencies? Was it a specific incident that drove him to seek help, or simply a long road of relationships torn asunder by his compulsion for insisting on phallic consumption rather than healthy and productive dialogue? The fact that we’re even asking the questions is a reminder that there’s often a lot more going on under the surface for our protagonists than we are aware of.
5. Zazie Beetz Bleeding Out Of The Eyes
A more keen-eyed viewer of the Bullet Train promotional campaign might have been aware of Zazie Beetz’ involvement, but to me, her reveal as the murderous, boomslang-venom-wielding, blow-up-doll-masked Hornet was a wonderful surprise.
In a perfect world, I would have preferred the Leitch alum to have stayed on set for more than the 30 minutes it took to film her scene so we could have had her in more of the movie. But the Hornet’s hemorrhagic collapse after being poisoned by her own boomslang venom (and having her single dose of antidote swiped by Ladybug, who she had also poisoned), followed by Ladybug’s pause mid-mansplaining why she should carry more than one dose of antidote to apologize for mansplaining is a note-perfect rendering of “missing the point” political correctness, and one of the funniest moments of the film.
But seriously, if you’ve got Zazie Beetz, give us more Zazie Beetz. Please and thank you.
6. The ATJissaince
I don’t remember when I purchased my first real estate holding on Aaron Taylor-Johnson island. I’m hard pressed to point to a pre-2020 movie of his that I truly love. But for whatever reason, ATJ has long been a certified MyGuy™, and his recent character-actor return to the mainstream (culminating in the blistering charm offensive he delivers as Tangerine in Bullet Train) has my property value skyrocketing.
Primarily acting opposite powerhouses Brian Tyree Henry and Brad Pitt and rocking a pornstar-worthy lip-caterpillar, ATJ modulates between indignant quips, stoic badassery, and some of the movie’s only genuine heartfelt emotion with ease. The man also wears the shit out of a royal blue three-piece suit, and that alone is tip-your-cap-worthy.
7. Brotherly Love
If ATJ alone is good, ATJ + BTH is top-tier casting. “Yeeeeeeah, not so sure they’re twins” Ladybug explains to his handler, but as with so many other things, he’s proven wrong before the end of the film. The nuance with which Bullet Train handles the Lemon & Tangerine backstory feels almost out of place, a single flashback to children watching TV serving as a rebuttal to Ladybug’s skepticism. With the help of a bit of craftily deployed sleeping powder, we’re offered an opportunity to see each brother mourn the other, and the weight of those moments lands harder than any others across the film.
But before that, we get some of the film’s best banter, a cheeky, millennial Statler-and-Waldorf bit that includes a hilariously bad Ringo Star impression from ATJ, an extended (and visualized) disagreement about kill count, and a surprisingly narratively significant deep-dive into the use of Thomas The Tank Engine as a means of analyzing personality types. Lemon & Tangerine are in many ways the heart of the film, and their brilliance as performers in tandem keeps us engaged with the film even when it starts to veer off course.
8. One Hell Of An Odenkirk
At approximately the ¾ mark of the wonderful 2019 Greta Gerwig film Little Women, the patriarch of the Marsh family appears on screen for the first time, portrayed by Bob Odenkirk. It’s a startling moment if you, like me, are a fan of the Breaking Bad-iverse, and if you, like me, had no idea that Saul Goodman would be suddenly appearing in a key role more than halfway through this early 20th century period piece.
That casting led a group of my fellow film nerd friends and me to begin using the term “Odenkirk” more colloquially, in reference to any actor whose unexpected arrival late in a film takes on outsized importance––oftentimes someone overqualified for the amount of screen time they receive, or someone whose gravitas can’t help but shift the gravity of the movie.
In the interest of preserving the sanctity of the moment, I’ll refrain from spoiling, but let’s just say there is one HELL of an Odenkirk down the stretch of Bullet Train, especially for fans of dramatic reenactment [dont hit this link if you don’t want it spoiled].
*a few other quintessential Odenkirks:
- Harvey Keitel as Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction
- Robert Duval as The Director in The Conversation
- LaKeith Stanfield as Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton
- Tim Robbins in High Fidelity
- Benjamin Bratt and Viola Davis and Salma Hayek and like 16 other people in Traffic
- Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man
9. That One Moment When Brad Tries To Do An Accent
There are a few reasons that fourth-wall-battering metacommentary is the default position of mainstream comedy these days, and not all are as empty as the “Ryan Reynolds is the antichrist” lobby would have you assume. To be sure, at worst the Deadpool School Of Comedy can serve as a cheap way to virtue signal blase intelligence without offering any substance behind it––a vapid sort of “I’m smart enough to know we live in a simulation and cool enough to not care” attitude that sucks the life and originality out of any scene.
At best, however, metacommentary can be Bill Hader breaking during a Stefon sketch, the moments when the veneer of unreality is stripped away and we get to see a professional truly enjoying the absolutely ludicrous work they do.
When Ladybug, while impersonating Lemon, breaks out a mangled faux cockney accent in a bad imitation of Brian Tyree Henry’s already questionable faux-cockney accent, and then is scolded by Aaron Taylor Johnson (truly the king of capital A Accent Choices) in an even crazier faux-cockney accent, which you probably didn’t even realize until just now was actually basically his REAL accent (?!?!?!?!) we bear witness to self-reflexive cinema at its mightiest and holiest.
10. Origin Stories
There’s no shortage of recurring motifs in Bullet Train, but the one with the best return on investment is the rapid-fire origin story. As the cast of characters expands, we’re repeatedly provided a 1.5-speed exposition dump for each of our assassins and the criminal underworld they occupy. When these are played for emotion, they rarely land, as there’s little time to catch our breath and process the weight of what we’re seeing. But when, in the midst of the movie’s culminating set piece, we detour into a step-by-step backstory for a Fiji water bottle, it’s like watching a symphony reach its climax, tying every melodic thread together into a perfectly crafted conclusion. 5 stars.
11. That One Moment When Brad Does A Bun
Just prior to the film’s climax, as the remaining ragtag crew of assassins prepare for their final stand, the camera pulls in close on a bloodstained and battered Brad Pitt as he reaches back and crumples his shoulder-length hair into a tight bun, saying “I’m gonna buy us some time.”
In that moment, Pitt reminds us once again why he has been one of the few consistent celestial bodies around which the Hollywood solar system orbits. Something about the way the lighting catches in the stubble on his cheek, the slow glance up to the camera, the head cock at the perfect angle, the few unkempt locks of gold spilling out from his hair tie. It’s a phenomenally stupid line, but that only serves to augment his ineffable gifts.
Have I mentioned Brad Pitt is hot?
12. Keep Pushing My Love/Over That Borderline
The number of throw-away one-liners littering the set of Bullet Train could make up half the script of Deadpool 3, but chief among them is Brad Pitt’s offhand suggestion that the mastermind behind the film’s chaos read Surviving A Borderline Parent. “Assassin in therapy” trope is nothing new, but the name-dropping of a seminal text on a specific personality disorder, and the subsequent realization that his armchair diagnosis of The Prince is actually founded in specific and tangible symptomatic evidence (“everyone else thinks I’m a character in their story. But you’re all in mine,” for example) is above and beyond, at the very least a top tier “Leo pointing at the screen” for anyone up on their Psychology Today subscription. Well played all around.
All told, is Bullet Train a perfect movie? Obviously not. Will it be in my top ten films of the year? Almost certainly no. But meet the movie where it is, turn your brain to power-save mode, open yourself up to the joy of two hours of well-acted dumb fun, and you might just have a wonderful time.
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