Bullet Train

Bullet Train ★★★½

Gimme an hour and I'll draw the 200 parallels between this and a vintage Guy Ritchie crime comedy bruiser but let's not waste that time here. It's a full-on Ritchie homage whether it means to be or not, but the good news is, most "Lock Stock" chasers are pretty headache-inducing (they're usually already hand-me-down Tarantino clones, then recycled again through yet another filmmaker's DNA...like that obnoxious try-hard "Gunpowder Milkshake" from last year to name but one example), whereas "Bullet Train" makes most of the right moves with its eclectically cool and flatteringly utilized cast, colorful character quirks, snappy repartee, bursts of smoothly engineered ultra-style and rhythmic movements, a controlled setting (the globe trotting that so many action movies do now can get tiresome), juicy plot twists and several delayed celebrity reveals up to the very end, and action that's fairly wild if not as mic-drop-worthy as some of the almighty action epics we've gotten over the past few years, but also at least not afraid to get messy the way they did back in the glory days of the '80s and '90s. These people get fucked up, but good. That's what you want to see.

Actually though, the stealth MVP here is the storytelling, if you ask me. A carefully planned-out web of interconnected subplots that we gradually figure out along the way. I'm on record spitting at the very idea of plot and story in a lot of movies these days because they're usually just a predictable white noise blockade keeping you from enjoying a great cast, interesting characters, ambience, aesthetic, tone, visual effects, choreography, everything else that there is to like about any given movie. Story is so highly prioritized by most films per the laws of this medium that even when there isn't a good one to tell, you're stuck sitting through its tired-ass beats anyway 9.5 times out of 10. This isn't a blanket rejection of all movie plotting, just something that I think Hollywood struggles with more and more as the historical archives overflow with titles and new ideas/fresh tactics understandably run dry. "Bullet Train"'s narrative isn't groundbreaking or profound, but it progresses with the satisfying sequential pay-off of a good mystery, tying everyone together little by little while also strutting around with sardonic humor, flashy presentation and gruesome bombast.

Pitt may not be the funniest member of this ensemble the way he was 22 whole years ago in an actual Guy Ritchie cheeky shoot-'em-up, but he's always been good at balancing heavy dramas and the lightest comedies and everything in-between throughout his career, so you're in good hands with him. He's a versatile star and still endlessly appealing even after all these years. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson rob the movie blind with their well-honed personas - Henry's expressions alone are funny every time while Taylor-Johnson is basically applying for the job of suave action hero himself (or anti-hero, whatever's available), and absolutely nailing it. He's just all-around cool, as the toughest brawler, the best dresser, the smoothest talker, even getting the most poignant moments in this otherwise not-very-emotional-at-all fireworks show. Why doesn't he have more prominence in the studio system yet? Seems like he rarely shows up in big or talked-about movies. Anyway he and Brian Tyree Henry are so good that they can't even be contained as villains, spilling over onto the other side as the movie goes on.

Special notice to Joey King too - I've come to regard her as kind of a pill after so many precocious kid roles in "ID4-2", that other Zach Braff dramedy, and "White House Down". I guess she's solidified herself in a bunch of Netflix movies lately? And "The Princess" sounds novel, even if the word of mouth isn't encouraging. All that to say, she's coming into her own better as an adult now in a movie like this. Her character is meant to be an annoying pebble in everyone's shoe but she creates an elegantly nasty little monster out of it. And just to summarize, Andrew Koji adds some integrity to the cast even if he's "only" doing a straight-man bit, Hiroyuki Sanada too, Bad Bunny makes a quick and amusing impression, Michael Shannon gets to be weird and formidable which is the right way to use him in an empty action spectacle like this, fun to see Zazie Beetz for a second, and too bad that Karen Fukuhara from "The Boys" is walking around this train but has no action scenes herself, because she plays a terrific fighter on that show and I'd like to see more of her in general.

About the state of action movies lately: this year just barely missed out on new "John Wick" and "Mission Impossible" sequels, aka the two current kings of forward-thinking, trendsetting, fuckin' awesome action filmmaking in this hemisphere, but just the fact that both those franchises are still performing at zenith level as of their most recent entries plays into my theory that we're living in a(nother?) golden age of the genre. What with romances and comedies existing in all-time lowest quantities in theaters, I don't know for sure if action has become the most common type of movies out there but it's starting to feel like it. They're everywhere, all the time, even as straight-to-streaming releases. Many are still disposable garbage no doubt, but look at just the notable ones that have come out this year: "Uncharted", "The Northman", "Ambulance", "Top Gun: Maverick", "The Gray Man", "Carter", "Bullet Train", "Prey", "Day Shift". No doubt whoever's reading this dislikes at least one of those titles if not several, but are they all not trying to deliver big on the set pieces and the fight scenes and the grandiose violence and doing so in distinct ways each time, using newer techniques to enhance intensity and immersion, or cranking up the absurdity tenfold, or bringing some kind of showmanship to the work? I think they all are, and they each have something a little different to offer action fans. I don't think I've enjoyed the action genre as frequently as I currently do in at least a decade or two. As cinema becomes more exclusively spectacle-driven in the struggle to survive the cultural transition to streaming movies at home, maybe action has found its moment again, by necessity.

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