The Hitman Vs. Assassin subsect of the action genre is one that rarely deviates from its rather tried and true formula; aside from a hefty injection of cash and a star-studded cast, something as recent as Netflix’s throwaway actioner The Gray Man is proof that the genre, even in 2022, seems comfortable resting on its laurels.
Thank God that Bullet Train decides to have some fun with the genre tropes – maybe even too much fun – as director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde, Hobbs & Shaw) goes all in on this absolutely chaotic, American-meets-Japanese amalgamation of bubblegum and blood. It’s brutally over the top and impossibly stupid, but it is entirely aware as such, so it gets away with it all in the name of tongued-cheeked fun.
Based on Kōtarō Isaka‘s Japanese novel “Maria Beetle”, Bullet Train leans into its source material as much as it hones its own personality, setting itself on the titular location as reformed assassin Ladybug (Brad Pitt, having an absolute ball of a time), under the impression from his sternly-voiced handler (a mostly unseen Sandra Bullock) that his latest job will be a simple snatch-and-grab, learns that his killer presence comes with its own violent baggage. There’s, of course, the literal baggage that is Ladybug’s primary objective – a cash-filled suitcase – but as he wanders up and down the carriages of the speeding train, it becomes all too evident that he’s not the only hired hand ready to shoot first and ask questions later.
Except Ladybug would actually love to ask questions first. Not only is he reformed, he’s practically a zen master, sprouting “new me” nonsense that could be entirely insufferable if Pitt wasn’t so bombastically charming and comedically capable. He’s the calm in a train of erupting storms, with the likes of British “siblings” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a standout) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), the deceptively dangerous Prince (Joey King), vengeful Kimura (Andrew Koji), and Mexican gun The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny) all weaving their violent agendas throughout.
In a big, loud film such as this, so many players may feel lost in the shuffle – and I haven’t even touched on the involvement of Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman and Hiroyuki Sanada – but, somehow, Zak Olkewicz‘s script mostly controls the chaotic lunacy. There’s the occasional short-changed character and a few scenes of cut-away exposition, but it proves infectious enough to get away with such indulgence, especially with how it presents the train itself, almost creating it as its own character with a varied personality to boot; a “quiet car” sequence allows for a particularly amusing, belief-suspending action sequence between Ladybug and Lemon, whilst another moment serves up a particularly amusing cameo that acts a brief reunion of sorts for Pitt and a former co-star.
Given what Leitch has delivered as an action director in the past – the filmmaker a former stunt-player himself – it makes sense that he draws inspiration from spectacle-heavy properties, here seemingly leaning into the work of Jackie Chan and predominant Asian cinema to present precise action sequences that are as brutally efficient as they are humorous.
The sheer volume and lack of subtlety on display here means Bullet Train will be exhausting for some, but exhilarating for others, and comparisons to the likes of Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and James Gunn seem inevitable – Lemon and Tangerine very much feel like character lifted off Ritchie’s page – but when the genre so often airs on the side of predictability, you have to hand it to Leitch and co. for creating something truly as wild and as unbridled as this. Personally, I’m on board for this nonsense, and would happily return for repeat journeys.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Bullet Train is screening in Australian theatres from August 4th, 2022.