Review: Despite Brad Pitt’s best efforts, “Bullet Train” comes off as a film with wonderful action and miserable storytelling. David Leitch tries to inject his usual tricks, but they don’t make up for heartless narratives and cheap jokes.
I’ve seen a lot of movies this year. I don’t say this in a self-congratulatory sense. I use this as a frame of reference to help articulate just how many movies actually stay in my own consciousness days after seeing them. When you ingest movies the same way a kid ingests sour patch kids, it takes something truly refreshing to dig into your mind long after your initial viewing. When “Bullet Train” came out earlier this year, I was praying it would be one of the few films that did that. After all, it was a blockbuster-style summer release that we seemed to be short on this past year. Unfortunately, “Bullet Train” fell into another bottomless bucket film archetype – the utterly lifeless and forgettable one that churns new releases out week after week.
But, needless to say, the Brad Pitt star vehicle hit Netflix not too long ago so I figured I would fire it up again to see how I felt. I imagined that this would be my lasting relationship to the film; one that years ago would’ve lived on cable and I would’ve caught a middle section of it occasionally as mindless action. But now we live in the world of streaming and it’s harder for a film to catch a second wind after middling critics reviews and audience reactions. It’s more likely that a film like “Bullet Train” gets buried in the overflow of new original content on whatever platform pays the rights to house it for that month.
I can’t say that I feel bad for “Bullet Train,” because frankly, I don’t think it’s very good, but it speaks to a larger issue in the industry. Up until the last decade or so, the film industry lived for rediscovery and reevaluation. Box office blunders could find their way into people’s homes on television and latch onto a cult-following that would keep it in service. Now, people can more aggressively choose what they consume. It’s easier to block out films that you may have seen once and have a detached relationship with. There’s pros and cons to both forms of consumption, but for a film like “Bullet Train,” I imagine it’s harder to push the film into cultural relevancy nearly six months after its initial release.
“Bullet Train” is a star vehicle, driven by the always wonderful and charming Brad Pitt. He plays the unlucky assassin Ladybug, who, after countless jobs going awry, is determined to have one peaceful gig aboard one of the world’s fastest trains. Unbeknownst to him, there’s a handful of other criminals aboard that have different plans and objectives, leading to one frightful confrontation after another.
David Leitch has always had an eye for creative action set pieces. The director of “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” has made a career with accessible, witty hijinks that spill a hefty amount of blood and crank the laughs up all the way. This in itself can be difficult to do, mainly because the script has to be nearly flawless and the actors or actresses have to be cast seamlessly. When that’s the case, it’s usually because Ryan Reynolds was born to be Deadpool (to the point where he’s determined to be Deadpool in every film he’s in from here to eternity) or Charlize Theron is such a dynamic actress that can pull off the stunts necessary to dazzle. When there’s a dozen characters going head to head, as is the case with “Bullet Train,” that balancing act is more difficult to pull off.
And that’s perhaps the biggest weakness for “Bullet Train.” Despite its star-studded cast of household names, there’s too many cooks in the kitchen for a film that’s marketed with a focus on Brad Pitt. Outside of him, Aaron Tayler-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry play a pair of brotherly assassins. Andrew Koji plays an empathetic father opposite a ruthless Joey King. Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz, Sandra Bullock, and freaking Bad Bunny all make appearances as well in a film that tries to get you to care about each character, but the end result is that you eventually care about none of them.
Throw in a couple worthless cameos like Channing Tatum and Michael Shannon and you get a film that offers you spectacle at the expense of any story that’s actually interesting. Brad Pitt is still the highlight, but even he is given so little characterization that there’s so little for him to even work with. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry offer some brotherly love and great chemistry, but their plotline is bogged down with clunky dialogue and jokes that are needlessly beat into the ground repeatedly (the Thomas the train joke isn’t funny the first time around, or the 80th time around).
As is the case with nearly every David Leitch film, the action sequences are the saving grace for “Bullet Train.” They’re well-crafted and endlessly stylish in a manner that few action filmmakers can pull off. Setting “Bullet Train” on a (you guessed it) high speed train offers many opportunities for visual spectacle, and Leitch takes advantage of those opportunities with set pieces that mostly pay off in the long run.
Even with those few highlights, “Bullet Train” has just way too many moving parts. As overstuffed as this film ends up being, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would’ve been better served as a limited series (an idea that made me throw up a bit as it entered my mind). To try to explain this plotline to someone who hasn’t seen this film is nearly impossible, and I would know. I’ve tried. It’s a film that I truly wanted to like upon rewatch, but wasn’t able to pull off much more than the first time I saw it.