Bullet Train is an wholesale derailment, an inane, ’90s-styled crime caper built on comedy that isn’t funny and action that’s plagued by godawful execution.
Early in Bullet Train, one of the more irksome of its many stupid characters is seen reading the novel Shibumi as a cute little winky gag. For those who don’t know, Shibumi is a ninja spy novel written by a guy who called himself Trevanian, and it was a big bestseller. But mostly it’s a silly, absurdly portentous fantasy for overgrown manchildren peppered with misogyny and shot through with cringe-y Orientalism, and once everyone realized that this guy’s books weren’t very good he actually claimed that they were written as intentional parody. Its presence here is fitting, then, because this movie is so profoundly annoying that you almost can’t believe it wasn’t just made as a goof. But no, someone actually thought it would be cool to go back to the late ’90s Tarantino/Ritchie knockoff well.
Brad Pitt stars as a zenned-out “snatch and grab” hitman, code name Ladybug, who boards the titular train in order to steal a briefcase, which is being guarded by Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (noted charisma vacuum Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who are, guess what, twin brothers — haha — with terrible cockney accents. Also on board are Wolf (Bad Bunny) and Prince (Joey King) and a bunch of other goofy-named, allegedly colorful killers. Don’t worry, though, you’ll be able to keep everyone straight because every time a new character is introduced there’s a freeze frame and their name pops up on screen, in a stylistic tic that was the hallmark of smarmy edgelord crime movies that nobody liked 30 years ago.
Apparently everyone here is either working for, or at the behest of, a notorious Keyser Soze-esque supervillain called The White Death, whose backstory we’re told at least three times by way of explaining how, of course, he is all-powerful, merciless, and particularly brutal. Everyone has a complicated backstory relayed in lengthy flashback montages, and everyone has lengthy monologues about either the ethical state of professional killing or pop culture touchstones — they hang in the air like pink smoke that you just have to choke on. It’s all meant to be comedic and energetic, but it’s just empty and utterly vapid.
The same goes for the action. Director David Leitch is a renowned stuntman and action choreographer who co-directed the first John Wick, but he’s steadily made worse and worse choices in material ever since, and simultaneously his talent has withered. Few action filmmakers have so rapidly squandered such goodwill, having gone first to Atomic Blonde — which, despite being derivative and boring, had tremendous fight sequences — to escalating bouts of garbage like Deadpool 2, Hobbs and Shaw, and now this tripe. The fight scenes here take place in cramped train cars, but the camera careens all over the place, shredding the choreography in the edit to cover for obvious stunt performers (whose hard work you can’t even see) and a general lack of imagination. Again, the action is meant to play as comedy, such as one scene where Ladybug and Lemon are battling in the “quiet car” and have to remain silent so as not to disturb the other passengers. That’d be funny if there was some actual impact on the fight itself, but instead they just smash all over the place while one grumpy old lady shushes them.
There are numerous attempts throughout by the characters to discuss fate and destiny and revenge and paths to redemption, and it seems like Bullet Train is trying desperately to lend some weight to all this cacophony, but none of the characters make any strong impression — save Pitt’s Ladybug, who is sort of by default the protagonist, but doesn’t seem competent enough to be threatening or funny enough to keep harping on his self-improvement shtick), and anyway they mostly get unceremoniously killed, usually as a punchline. So what’s to care about? There’s nothing to hold onto, which wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy worked or the action was worthwhile, but mostly you’ll just be waiting for the train to stop or crash so that whoever is left can have their final quippy, bloody showdown and you can finally go home.