Bullet Train starts off in a hospital room, not on a train. Grieving father Kimura (Andrew Koji), stands over the bed where his son, who was pushed off the roof of a building, lies unconscious. Over time, we learn who he is and why somebody wanted to hurt his boy. The answer is needlessly complicated, a fact that proves limiting to the movie's overall success. Although there are plenty of good qualities here, I'm not sure I could explain all the intricacies of the plot if I had to. As befitting the title, the film passed rapidly before my eyes, yet I never fully got on board with it.
Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is an assassin with perpetual bad luck. He's sent to Japan to hop a high-speed locomotive and steal a briefcase. Multiple other shady people are also making the trip. Two killers, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), have possession of the briefcase. A Latin gangster named the Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny) arrives at one point, and there's a seemingly innocent young woman, Prince (Joey King), who proves more malevolent than anyone imagines. Everyone is either after the case or looking to kill someone else. Ladybug just wants to grab the case and leave, but encounters with the others make that impossible.
Somehow, the plot additionally works in a venomous snake, a corpse who repeatedly gets the Weekend at Bernie's treatment, a costumed kids' show character, and a notoriously vicious crime lord called White Death (Michael Shannon). Theaters would be smart to hand out a score card to customers purchasing a ticket.
The actors are very funny in their roles, even if the story is overstuffed. Bullet Train is designed as kind of an action-farce, with the characters colliding in comical/violent ways. Several of those encounters made me laugh out loud, as did the often witty dialogue. Lemon's obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine is particularly hilarious, as is the way Ladybug swears in exasperation at each new obstacle he faces. (Brad Pitt has a delightfully droll way of saying things like “Shitballs!”) Director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) stages the action with creativity, finding humor in the outrageous methods of physical aggression the passengers utilize. Excellent production design makes the train a colorful environment for all the mayhem.
Where Bullet Train falters - significantly - is in the storytelling. This is one of those movies where the plot unfolds almost in reverse. Initially, we don't know who everyone is, what their motivations are, or how they're connected. Via flashbacks and (too many) wacky asides, the pieces gradually come together. Sort of. Suspense is minimized by doling out information so slowly, and all of the double-backs and shifting allegiances only serve to muddy the water. Throughout the film, I found myself wishing it had streamlined the plot. Never fully understanding what's going on grows frustrating. The denouement, which relies on an excess of poor green-screen effects and unconvincing CGI, attempts to tie everything together, but it's too little, too late by then. I can't remember the last time a film worked so hard to deliver so little.
Some movies fully engage you, others zip by harmlessly without making a true impact. Bullet Train falls into the latter category. Surface pleasures can be found all over the place. Substantive rewards are scarce. It isn't a bad picture, just one that sends you out the door wishing there'd been more to it.
out of four
Bullet Train is rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.