Bullet Train

Bullet Train ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"Bad luck. That follows me around like…I don’t know, something witty."

My second viewing of this in theaters in just under a month, and...not much has changed. The good things are still good (Brad Pitt, recent abuse allegations aside, remains a charismatic movie star onscreen and largely provides an anchor even when the story meanders or the visuals dissolve into digital noise; the action scenes of the first hour mostly make decent use of the squarely cramped environment of the train cars; and the film as a whole is well-cast, in spite of underusing or wasting a decent chunk of its ensemble, though I'll give props to Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's rapport), and the window dressing remains window dressing (all the thematic stabs at luck or fate and any flourishes of Japanese culture, from the pop song covers to the writing strewn about).

Unfortunately, director David Leitch's aims clarified themselves as really never going beyond surface-level cool at any point during the film. Whenever an important new character is introduced, they get a cutesy freeze-frame title card, a trope that, as In Review Online's Matt Lynch notes, is older than I'd like to believe, having originated from films thirty years ago that are apparently of similar quality. Several times, Leitch captures the White Death sliding a gun down his sleeve or the Elder slowly unsheathing his sword, which I guess he wants to elicit anticipation for something cool happening but regularly did the opposite for me. Most of that attempted coolness bleeds into the humor too and got old quickly (I'll just say that I disagree with IndieWire's David Ehrlich about any instances coming close to a belly laugh, however rare), but it went beyond being annoying and...kinda took away from more essential elements. To wit: Loath as I've become recently to holding up an adaptation's source material and declaring it better out of principle, it's a damning indictment when the book on which Bullet Train is based—no, I didn't believe that initially either—does a better job of establishing the train's geography at any given moment (and develops the Elder more fully, with multiple flashback chapters focused on his relationship with Wataru, but I digress). Whenever a new chapter starts, a basic diagram of the numbered train cars grays out the ones in which the chapter's action occurs. It's simple and effective, even if it's about as much as can be accomplished on the page, and Leitch can't even match that in a visual medium that expressly shows its audience images instead of beckoning them to imagine events in their heads. Several times he cuts to an object on the ground, and I can't tell whether it's in the same train car as the character in the previous shot, let alone where it is on the train at all. Sandra Bullock's Maria tells Pitt's Ladybug that the Shinkansen has "ten economy cars, six first-class" at the outset, but Leitch shoots the movie and most of its action in rapidly cut medium shots and close-ups, with nary a wide exterior shot to orient the audience. (The closest he comes to that is the transitional shots of the Shinkansen hurtling through Japan, but they don't seem to clarify any geography as much as emphasize that the train's still moving and time is running out before it stops and Something Happens.) It's disappointing because I can already see how he could've done it: Have two characters start fighting in a train car, then cut to a wide shot of the whole train that shows where they're fighting through its windows and doubles as a visual gag. It's been done before, but it would work! Oh, and the third act did not improve upon a second viewing either: It's still a rushed cacophony of digital fire and noise, slow-motion camera tricks, and the rest of the film's $90 million budget applied wherever possible onscreen, straining to distract from how the film should've cut the bloat and ended half an hour before it did.

Alas, Bullet Train has been done before and largely doesn't work. If Leitch's intent was a fun action movie that put entertainment first and themes a distant second, then fine. I just wish the action was good, or at least good enough for me to be swept up in it instead of focused on the visible seams. Go watch Nobody or Day Shift instead, two movies whose compare-and-contrast tangents I'll save for Violent Night, or something.

*I don't know whether Atomic Blonde or Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw follow the trend, but Bullet Train and Deadpool 2 constitute at least two David Leitch movies whose scripts contain the word "shitballs." That probably says something about him, but I'm not sure how.

**ETA 2022-10-08: okay now i've seen Pulp Fiction and i hate this more.

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