Bullet Train

Bullet Train ★★★

Five fast takeaways from Bullet Train:

1. Bullet Train could easily be renamed Snakes on a Plane and it would work just fine: literally (the boomslang snake), metaphorically (the mottled assemblage of outlaw assassins), and categorically (its self-deprecatory cheekiness). So much of this felt like an homage to the gaudy, neon-soaked, inanely scripted, uber-kinetic, post-masculine cinematic escapades of a few decades prior (Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, Smoking Aces, Lucky Number Slevin, etc.). The sped-up action sequences, the garish banter, the extreme angles, the crafty camerawork, the loud and cartoonish and calamitous fights, and the byzantine plot cumulatively create a cacophonous sensory assault. The goal is to be as titillating and maximalist as possible, and to avoid the death of sincerity by adding a martini wink and wry comedic aside. It’s the postmodern deflection — avoid critique by treading lightly.

2. Unlike planes, however, trains have multiple compartments. They are also stuck on a direct track: a linear line of movement. There's little room to deviate from the programmed trajectory. A bullet train, particularly, adds another element to the mix: accelerating this sequential progression at a max speed. It thus serves as a perfect conduit for high-octane cinema. Movies, after all, must proceed forward, frame-by-frame. Action movies strive to do so swiftly. Whereas Murder on Orient Express mirrors its antiquated locomotive format, enjoying the leisurely, procedural, whodonut pacing of an Agatha Christy mystery film, and Snowpiercer, with its satirical bent, focuses on the hierarchical assemblage of each train car as a caste stata, Bullet Train is very much aligned with its titular mode of transportation. It is ultra-fast, very violent, and totally okay dinging along: ever ricocheting and reloading.

3. Another possibility offered by the discretely compartmentalized units of a train is the ability to differentiate each space. Unlike Snowpiercer, which uses each train car to represent a microcosm of society, or Orient Express, which meticulously maps the constricted train spaces for investigative/detective intrigue, Bullet Train’s constrained spaces feel codified in the syntax of pop culture. We get the anime-adjacent compartment decked out to the theme of a Japanese kid's TV show. We get the chic and jazzy first-class barroom of a spy thriller. We get hijinks and thriller elements and bumbling British assassins relegated to business class. Here, the train cars are more decoration than subtext, and that's okay.

4. Matching the visually lurid train compartments, each archetypal assassin feels like a byproduct of a different genre and cultural tradition. There's two quippy British hitmen (Lemon & Tangerine), ripped straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie. A modern day, revenge-centered, femme-fatale in The Prince, who feels like she could co-exist in Gunpowder Milkshake or Kate. An ex-yakuza assassin, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), from a Japanese samurai classic. A Kill Bill-style poison artist: The Hornet (Zazie Beetz). A Mexican assassin, The Wolf (Bad Bunny), who would befit any Robert Rodriquez joint or feel very much in place in Refn's under appreciated Too Old to Die Young series. All of these assassins have been planted on the bullet train by the White Death (Michael Shannon), your stereotypical Russian mobster boss figure. The net effect of this highly orchestrated, overwrought plot set up is pastiche: to blend multiple assassin genres together in a claustrophobic setting.

5. Speaking of a proliferation of roles, cameos run amok in this as well, and to be blunt, cameos are becoming an increasing pet peeve of mine. They can be fun, when done with wily and clever panache. But they can also represent a decline in artistic confidence or merit. It is a pretty telltale sign that a rap artist is fading or fearful of fading when their track-listing is teeming with guest appearances. The same could be said for summertime Hollywood blockbusters. For a cameo to truly gel, the role must play off the actor's aura (their persona, their iconic leitmotifs) with the right tone and balance. Lean too into the actor's off-screen identity and it ruins the mystique of the movie. Neglect to play off their persona altogether, and the cameo just doesn't hit.

Here, the cameos work with diminishing returns. The Channing Tatum appearance, playing of his homoerotic-bro-doofus schtick, is initially funny, but it tires immediately. The Sandra Bullock reveal (for anyone unable to spot her very familiar voice) adds a slight bit of added celebrity gravitas to the handler role, but is pretty futile. Anyone could have handled that role, and little is lost or gained by being able to overpay to plug a celebrity. The Ryan Reynolds bit, however, felt utterly superfluous: a nepotistic callback to Deadpool that distracted me from the movie. 

Like much of the movie’s humor (the Thomas the Train motif, the nagging old white lady nonsense, the screwball bits, the shootout tomfoolery, the extreme serendipity, the bloated self-help conceit), I understood what the Reynolds cameo was trying to be, and yet I just wasn't into it. For all the film's pomp and pizzazz, it ultimately fell a bit flat. It seemed to be under the assumption that style and celerity could blur its flaws, and thus pulled everything out of its playbook to zip us along in a giddy state of half-baked delirium. Perhaps, it could have worked. But even a bullet train will grow tedious if it takes too long to arrive at the final destination. And with a runtime of over 2 hours, that is very much the case here. Disembark a half-hour earlier and this might be a dumb, summer masterpiece as opposed to a fun but tumescent work of mindless mediocrity.

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