Movies are always better when the action is set on a train. Whether it’s death (Murder on the Orient Express), zombies (Train to Busan), or Soylent Green (Snowpiercer), locomotives add another layer of atmosphere to the equation. It’s surprising that David Leitch hasn’t worked more trains into his movies, especially since he directed a Fast & Furious picture. Leitch makes impactable use of his latest film’s titular bullet train, turning it into one of the story’s many colorful characters. While not as game-changing as John Wick or as consistently hilarious as Deadpool 2, Bullet Train beams with the kinetic energy and sly personality we’ve come to anticipate from Leitch.
The film naturally takes place on a bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. Yet, most of the main characters are either American or English. A surprising number of them are also from Atlanta and The Lost City. While he only had a walk-on role in the latter film, Brad Pitt takes center stage as Ladybug. Pitt delivers one of his goofiest performances since Burned After Reading, in which his character met an untimely demise. Ladybug is luckier (kind of). He has a knack for getting out of life-threatening situations alive. Yet, people around him tend to accidentally die in bizarre ways. The ultimate jinx, Ladybug manages to be the best and worst assassin on a train full of killers.
On this job, Ladybug doesn’t set out to kill anyone. He’s tasked with picking up a briefcase of money and getting off after one stop. Things don’t go according to plan, as there’s more than one assassin after the briefcase. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry make for an unlikely set of twins named Tangerine and Lemon, respectively. If you crossed the Odd Couple with two Guy Ritchie characters, you’d have this duo. They’re a hoot to listen to, whether discussing their latest kill count or Thomas the Tank Engine. As Lemon passes out Thomas stickers, Joey King puts up an innocent front as Prince, a deadly in pink assassin. Also in the mix are a hostage, a crime lord, a boy in the hospital, a snake, an anime mascot, and a swarm of cameos.
Bullet Train plays like The Suicide Squad on the subway. The audience may resist getting too invested in the characters, as everyone is expendable. However, you can’t help but get attached to everyone who storms onto the screen. When one of them bites the bullet, it’s a bummer, but it’s hard to complain when they go out in such style. There’s also little time to mourn, as Leitch keeps the action flowing at such a rapid pace. The inventive action is matched by the film’s twists, which cleverly tie several plot points together into a chaotic yet tidy package.
If there’s one thing holding Bullet Train back from being a great action picture, it’s the motivation. The briefcase never becomes more than a generic McGuffin. The setup would’ve been more intuiting if Leitch had pulled a Pulp Fiction, giving the briefcase a mysterious ambiance. Even the briefcase doesn’t sustain motivation for too long, as the characters become distracted one too many times. If you told somebody the movie’s story beat for beat, Bullet Train could seem messy. Thankfully, Leitch chooses to show rather than tell. As a visual experience, Bullet Train is silly, wicked, and the epitome of summer escapism.