Bullet Train Review: Going Off The Rails

RATING : 6 / 10
  • Brilliant slapstick action sequences
  • Great comic performances from the central cast -- in particular, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry
  • Runs out of steam by the third act
  • Replaces stripped down action choreography with disastrous CGI spectacle by the finale

You've probably heard of Chekhov's Gun, the theory that any object introduced in the first act must be used by the third. In "Bullet Train," director David Leitch gives us Chekhov's Battalion, the opening 10 minutes taking us to a locker stocked with unconventional weapons, while we overhear ominous news reports of a deadly snake gone missing in the streets of Tokyo. It's no surprise that everything introduced in this opening stretch will have a pay-off later, and that's precisely the point; knowing that the audience is about to watch a film set almost entirely within the claustrophobic confines of a commuter train, Leitch immediately wants you to overlook the mundane setting to imagine just how much hell is going to break loose on board.

If there is a flaw to the otherwise enjoyable "Bullet Train," it's that Zak Olkewicz's screenplay eventually loses confidence with the straightforward action-comedy thrills that are initially teased. Every Chekhov's Gun teased is paid off before we arrive at the third act, leaving the film with no choice but to become more bloated in terms of physics-defying set pieces and distracting celebrity cameos — not to mention its unwavering commitment to a criminal underworld subplot that should have only ever been a McGuffin leading the characters to the train in the first place. In its best moments, "Bullet Train" is everything you want from a popcorn blockbuster, best experienced with your brain switched firmly in the off position — but by the time the train arrives at its destination, it's hard not to feel that we should have exited a few stations earlier.

All aboard

Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, a hitman ironically named because bad luck follows him everywhere he goes. It's no surprise that this doesn't change when his handler (Sandra Bullock, in a mostly voiceover performance) gives him a job turned down by another hitman, a simple mission to retrieve a briefcase onboard a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. Of course, things aren't as easy as expected, as several other assassins are on board with the same objective and won't let any obstacle get in their way. These include the British hitmen Lemon and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), and the mysterious sociopath known only as The Prince (Joey King), with more getting on board as the vehicle hurtles closer to its destination.

Shortly after boarding the train, the film becomes curiously disinterested in Pitt's protagonist for the vast majority of the first act, spending much more time with the squabbling British hitmen played by Taylor-Johnson and Tyree Henry. This is no complaint; the pair have an infectious comedic chemistry that feels lived-in, helping them land jokes that would likely feel tiresome in the hands of any other performers. This is namely a recurring joke about "Thomas the Tank Engine," which a conservative estimate would suggest comprises approximately 95% of Tyree Henry's entire dialogue in the film, which takes more time than it would in any other actor's hands to become insufferable — although by the third act, you will likely never want to hear the names of any of the trains from the Island of Sodor ever again.

If every assassin in the film is styled after characters from a different subgenre of the action movie, the pair's characters are the most obvious homage, feeling like they've just walked in from an early Guy Ritchie movie, complete with the Tarantino-esque pop culture riffing. It's a testament to their screen presences that this never feels stale, even as the characters are the furthest thing from fresh archetypes imaginable. They're not the first action movie characters to humorously comment upon the unfolding drama like members of the audience would, and they certainly won't be the last.

Low speedy storytelling with a high speed train

Next to Lemon, Tangerine, and Pitt's Ladybug, the other assassins on board are given relatively short shrift. Joey King's The Prince, the character on board revealed to have the closest ties to the overarching criminal underworld plot, is largely a peripheral focus until the third act. Her character is the most unapologetically sociopathic, but the film doesn't let her have as much fun with this as you'd like, increasingly functioning as a way to tie the disparate plot strands across the different carriages together. And if you're wondering about how a film with such a simple premise clocks in over the two-hour mark, look no further than Leitch's repeated digressions, including a four-minute montage introducing the hitman played by rapper Bad Bunny, a character who quickly exits the film after a single fight sequence (somehow, this isn't even the biggest waste of a cast member). By the time he interrupts the action to give us an extended montage from the perspective of a water bottle in the third act, charting how it made its way on board, it's easy to see his eye for a stylish visual has got in the way of his ability to tell a straightforward story. It's ironic that a film about a high-speed train can start dragging to the extent it eventually does.

Of course, this review is a result of fatigue after the overstuffed third act, which replaces the brilliantly staged fight sequences Leitch is known for with an empty CGI spectacle. Considering his previous film was the Fast & Furious spin-off "Hobbs and Shaw," it's easy to get the sense the director is consciously trying to up the ante in a similar way to the deliberately unrealistic set pieces in that franchise, but it feels less than satisfying. This is a film at its best during its slapstick fist fights on board, but it does seem like Leitch sees the train setting as a crutch he needs to overcome, even though the film is at its best when using the claustrophobic confines to ground increasingly over the top action choreography. Moving away from practical effects to a seemingly endless chain of destructive events, complete with too many distracting celebrity cameos to list, does feel like the result of a director losing confidence with the simple ingenuity of the train-set premise, even when those moments are the most satisfying to an audience.

So, while "Bullet Train" may eventually go off the rails, there's plenty to enjoy on the journey before then, thanks to a trio of fun comic performances at the film's center and a healthy dose of hyper-violent slapstick. The film is overstuffed, but when it realizes the simple pleasures of its action-comedy thrills, it becomes the late summer blockbuster treat it aspires to be. 

"Bullet Train" rolls into theaters on Friday, August 5.