Bullet Train

Bullet Train ★★½


Bullet Train is perhaps the most cartoonish non-animated film ever. Which is not a bad thing per se.

In other news, Pulp Fiction has a lot to answer for. Following its’ release in 1994, a legion of wannabe Tarantino knock-offs were spawned, “influenced” by it, and, surprisingly Bullet Train harks back to that time. It is a film that obviously really wants to be your new favourite “cult” classic, despite costing a shitload of money to make.

In fact, there is not a single original bone in its’ body. It mixes Tarantinoesque touches such as a philosophical hitman attempting to walk a righteous path, bickering between crooks about who gets which codename/moniker, with Tarantinoesque flashbacks and flash forwards (which don’t always work, or add anything to the story), as well as with nods to Guy Ritchie films, Japanese cartoons, John Wick films, Deadpool. At the very least it is a sporadically hilarious, and always ridiculous raucous ’90s throwback with a very messy modern edge.

There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had spotting the cameos and clapping the occasionally inventive gore, but Bullet Train isn’t quite as fun a ride as it thinks it is. Also, and quite surprisingly because all of Leitch’s films that I have previously seen had pretty coherent, spatially aware and inventive fight/action scenes, Bullet Train mostly fluffs the fight scenes by disruptive rapid fire cutting which obscures their choreography and robs them of texture and friction.

Bullet Train has the same McGuffin as Pulp Fiction, namely a briefcase. But unlike Pulp Fiction, this one isn’t sitting in a diner, but as the name of the film betrays, it’s hurtling through the Japanese countryside at 200mph on the fastest train in the world. Brad Pitt is Ladybug (a codename that is one of a considerable amount of touches that the film thinks are pretty inspired and funny, but which really are not much), the almost-retired hitman hired to steal the case from two British gangsters with ridiculous cockney accents (which are initially quite funny but half way through become pretty tiresome), Tangerine (Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Tyree Henry). Then there’s Prince (Joey King), The Wolf (Bad Bunny) and other assorted “colourful” and colourful personages, who are all passengers tangled up in the same twisty plot involving British schoolgirls, Mexican assassins, the Yakuza and Russian warlords, among other things.

It will come as no surprise from the abovementioned that the film’s “everything including the kitchen sink” approach is one of its’ main problems as there are far too many styles and things jostling for space that mostly none are really allowed to breathe and develop.

The film’s casting is also pretty weird, but thankfully, it’s full of vastly overqualified actors having a ball, which is quite infectious. Among it there are only a couple of Japanese guys (one of whom is played by Andrew Koji, who is in fact British) which leaves the film open to an obvious criticism: that Hollywood has taken a famous Japanese novel, and cast it almost entirely with non-Japanese actors, despite keeping the Japanese setting. This is an issue that is compounded by the fact that the whole film is pretty sparsely populated with very few people being present on the train itself and even on the station platforms, most of whom are not Japanese. Also, half of the ‘British’ cast are actually American, which gifts us Tyree Henry’s hilariously specific London accent, just one of many things in Bullet Train that seem to be nicked directly from Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and is so ridiculous that it’s actually reasonably funny throughout.
Bullet Train, like its’ train namesake, moves at breakneck speed, is occasionally pretty gory with incessant twists (half of which don’t really work or are there for the filmmakers themselves to think that they are oh so clever) but the more it does, and despite the fact that more and more famous faces keep popping up for cameos, the more Bullet Train starts losing momentum. Until it crashes headlong into its’ disappointingly lame and predictable climax, with iffy CGI that is supposed to effect a “big bang” but only succeeds in being merely a whimper.

But, and it is a considerable “but” actually, it’s practically impossible not to enjoy (despite oneself) every moment that Pitt is on screen. Working brilliantly with whatever he’s given (a water bottle, a bucket hat, a smart toilet, a venomous snake etc), he’s clearly having a great time, which luckily mostly rubs off.

Bullet Train then, for all its’ flaws, seems to be exactly the film for which the phrase “mindless, dumb fun” was coined.

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