Bullet Train (2022): a fun ride, but a little slight and a little pleased with itself

Sometimes I forget that it’s summer (well, other than the relentless heatwaves to remind me, of course). And summertime means we get dumb blockbusters. Although there’s a solid argument to be made that action movies don’t have to be dumb, and this Reddit thread has some good examples.

It does feel like though, that in recent times Hollywood (and I include studios like Netflix) have opted for dumb as a default. Perhaps it’s just easier to put together a basic story with simple characters. The Gray Man is an example of this, throwing action set piece after set piece at us, but taking almost no time to develop any of the characters beyond their basic introduction.

We’ve also recently had Red Notice, Jungle Cruise and Thor: Love and Thunder give us similarly simple stories. To put it plainly, they’ve all largely been devoid of intelligence (in terms of story) and lacked any sort of complex character development (or even just regular character development). Bullet Train is the latest to add to that pile. Granted, it gets a bit more of a pass than the others I’ve mentioned, but mostly due to the movie star charisma and likeability of two of its cast: Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

Between them they carried this film.

The mission…

Speaking of which, the set-up is as follows: an assassin named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) — who has recently returned to work — is tasked with stealing a briefcase from a passenger aboard Japan’s bullet train, running from Tokyo to Kyoto. The trouble is, and little does he know, the train is packed with other assassins, all with tasks, missions and vendettas of their own — which inevitably derail Ladybug’s otherwise simple first job back. Two hitman given a lot of screen time are Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), tasked with protecting the case and an important passenger. As you might expect, neither thing goes according to plan.

The story is adapted from a Japanese dark comedic thriller novel by Kotaro Isaka, which came out in 2010. Initially, director Antoine Fuqua planned to make a serious version of this story, but it didn’t pan out, so David Leitch took up the task. He’s most well known for directing Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw and Nobody, so he knows his way around action, and action-comedy. Therefore, as expected, this film became much more comedic once he came on board.

And speaking of comedy, it’s always nice to see Brad Pitt flex that side of his acting — as he does himbo so well (see 2008’s Burn After Reading). Although I feel he goes too far here, whereas, say, in Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) he struck the perfect balance of smart and dumb. Although I imagine he only did what the director told him to do.

You what, bruv?

This film also had other, how shall we say, interesting creative choices going on. Most notably the accents. I read that Brian Tyree Henry worked hard on his cockney. I’d say he did OK maybe fifty per cent of the time. The rest of his lines he mumbled (in the hope that we wouldn’t hear him) and drifted all over the place. Why oh why do Americans keep trying to do this particular accent? Wasn’t Don Cheadle’s bizarre attempt enough to put you all off forever? I guess not.

Perhaps Karl Urban is to blame with his accent in TV show, The Boys, although he’s from New Zealand and I’ve grown to quite like his portrayal of Billy Butcher. He manages far better doing some version of cockney than Tyree Henry does, who I read took his cues from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who himself seemed to have decided he was in some kind of Guy Ritchie movie, which I actually quite liked. The thing is, he’s a Brit, so of course he’d manage the accent. I wish Lemon would have had an American accent and they’d have just not explained why he sounded different to Tangerine (the two are supposed to be close). That would have been funnier.

Adding fuel to the fire, Leitch, no doubt encouraged by Tyree Henry’s fantastic accent work, decided to get another American actor doing a British accent, in the form of Joey King (whose character is called The Prince, for reasons which become clear as things unfold). At the very least she was going for Queen’s English, which Americans can often manage a little better. I’d say she nailed it about eighty five per cent of the time, which isn’t bad. Although there was little character or story reason for her to have an English accent — she could have just been American, or (shock horror!) they could have cast a Brit in the role. I assume Leitch hoped all the weird accent work was adding to the comedy.

Funny gets tiring…

This film is fun, in a throwaway way — as you won’t find yourself thinking about it a great deal afterwards. In fact, you’re likely to forget it as soon as you step outside the cinema. But maybe that’s all it was trying to be, something dumb and throwaway to pass the time during the summer. In terms of the humour, there’s almost too much of the Guy Ritchie style black humour baked into every scene. It gets exhausting. I felt like the film needed more moments of drama and pathos. It’s like, if you stuff too much chocolate down your throat, after a while it’ll make you sick, or at least long for something fresh, like a salad.

Basically what I’m getting at is, I expected more from this film. And I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to say, given the calibre of the cast. I’d seen the trailer and thought it looked cool, but I wasn’t expecting the film to be anything in particular. I suppose, if I had to give it some thought, perhaps I was hoping for Atomic Blonde on a train. I know David Leitch’s work as a director and Atomic Blonde and Nobody are particular favourites. Yet Bullet Train felt more slight than those two. Yes, the fight scenes were pretty great, I just felt a little let down in terms of plot and character.

I give this movie 3/5 stars.

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