It’s been said that the era of the movie star is dead. I’m not sure I’d say it’s dead, per se, but it’s definitely in a medically induced coma. For example, take a look at the highest grossing films of 2022 thus far. A few of them are:

  • Top Gun: Maverick
  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
  • Jurassic World: Dominion
  • The Batman
  • Minions: The Rise of Gru

All of those films are intellectual property. All of them are part of a franchise, to some degree. With one exception, their success isn’t based on who the star is. Rather, their success is based on a filmgoer’s comfort level with that IP. Most people don’t really care who plays Batman, as long as a) the actor in the cape and cowl is portraying Batman to a somewhat recognizable degree and b) the story being told about Batman is reasonably familiar.*

Before you sneer at the cinematic viewing habits of modern America, I’ll remind you that it used to be different. It used to be that most people based their filmgoing decisions on who was in the movie, not what it was about. People would march up to the box office, plunk their money down, and declare, “Two for the Bruce Willis movie.” Then, and only then, would they worry about the movie being good.

That’s why when a film like Bullet Train is released, it gets my attention. Not because it’s a Superior cinematic specimen (it’s not) and not because it’s an embarrassing throwback (it isn’t). It’s a late summer action movie anchored by a major star and it feels like it would be right at home in 1998.

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is trying to get back on the metaphorical horse. He’s a big believer in luck. Bad luck, specifically, and bad luck happening to him, even more specifically. Fortune is a factor in any industry, but Ladybug’s work is more of the extralegal variety. Back in the day, we get the sense that he was a hit man. While he might not have been the best, he was certainly good enough. 

Even assassins need to get their heads straight, and Ladybug is trying out a new attitude. He tells his handler (Sandra Bullock), “You put peace into the world and you get peace back.” She’s easing him back into the game with a seemingly simple job. It’s a snatch and grab — he just has to get on a bullet train in Tokyo, nab a specific briefcase, and get off the train at the next stop. Ladybug is filling in for another guy, so what could be more simple?

Yet the job isn’t that simple, naturally. Complications arrive with brotherly British killers Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), femme-fatale Prince (Joey King), revenge-minded cartel hitter The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio), Yakuza father (Hiroyuki Sanada) and son (Andrew Koji), all after the same briefcase. We’ve got teams of opposing assassins, shifting alliances, hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, and a wildly venomous snake, all trapped in a train moving very quickly.

If you’ve seen the trailer for Bullet Train, you’ve basically seen the movie. Additionally, if you’ve seen action comedies like Snatch, Smokin’ Aces, and Shoot ‘Em Up, you’ve basically seen Bullet Train. All feature quirky characters, solid action, and double-crosses. I’m fine with an entry like that, and director David Leitch does excellent work with the well-choreographed action scenes. What’s less excellent is the erratic pacing and wildly changing tone. A film like this should function like a…well, a bullet train. It should start fairly slowly, build up momentum, and then move like a missile. Instead, things move VERY quickly, screech to a halt, amble awhile, rocket to life, then suddenly stop for an ill-timed flashback or dialogue sequence. Adding to the confusion is the tone that shifts from Deadpool-esque referential comedy to Wickian action to meditative crime drama. Those ingredients are worthwhile, but they don’t complement each other; they just keep getting in the way.

Making things more complicated is the unfocused script by Zak Olkewicz. It bears mentioning that Bullet Train is based on the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka and it focuses on the hostile takeover of the Japanese underworld by masked Russian crimelord The White Death. As far as plots go, that’s fine, and that plot explains the motivations of most of our main characters. Most, but not all, That plot at no point has anything to do with Ladybug beyond extremely vague musings about fate. He doesn’t get involved due to his motivations, relationships, or his past. It’s just dumb luck, which makes Ladybug feel like a passive protagonist.

The film tries papering over those story flaws by casting talented and likable actors, which kind of works! Pitt’s Ladybug doesn’t want to hurt anybody, and he even resists his handler’s suggestions that he should carry a gun. He’s just a nice guy who wants to get the hell off the train with the briefcase and isn’t seeking out conflict. I enjoyed his mellow vibe in the midst of all the madness, and each time I’d start to get grumpy over something that felt derivative, Pitt would arrive & cool things out. Brian Tyree Henry as the Thomas the Tank Engine obsessed Lemon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the Guy Ritchie refugee Tangerine are fun together, though their schtick does run a bit long. There are also a few cameos played by huge stars which are…fine, I guess? It doesn’t add up to a hell of a lot, but perhaps it doesn’t have to.

Speaking of Isaka’s novel, the original work did not feature a white guy as Ladybug. As far as I know, all of the main characters were Japanese. Is this a classic case of Hollywood whitewashing? Well…yeah. My gut tells me the decision to anchor the film around Pitt was based on him being a recognizable name, and the belief that audiences wouldn’t respond to a project with only Asian actors. I will remind folks that Squid Game was a massive success and that there were only sporadic white faces. Believe me when I tell you, it would have been fine.

At the end of the day, Bullet Train is a kind of good star vehicle for Brad Pitt. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, create a transformative emotional experience, or showcase the apex of feature filmmaking. Bullet Train is a perfect example of style over substance. You’ll enjoy it as you watch it, then the memory will zoom away minutes later. 

 

*Imagine a drama about Bruce Wayne having a breakthrough. He realizes the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s spent on Batman-related gear never really made Gotham City better, and he resolves to clean up the city through philanthropic and social means. Would a movie about a superhero realizing that his superhero identity doesn’t actually work be fascinating? Oh, hell yes. Would said movie actually get made? I’m thinking no.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.