‘Style over substance’ is a term bandied about as criticism. This is usually true. Yet it can also be a compliment, depending on how whizz bang eye candy the style happens to be.
David Leitch (producer of Nobody, uncredited co-director of the original John Wick) knows a thing or two about the power of style, and also what dropping ‘Japan’ into the mix can achieve.
What Is Bullet Train About?
Based on the book by Kōtarō Isaka, Bullet Train is a fast-paced, wise-cracking action comedy with more assassins than you can shake a bentō box at, all confined within a 200mph metal tube, aka the shinkansen bullet train.
The killers all have pseudonyms and different motivations, yet possess an unforeseen connecting thread that slowly reveals itself to them all.
Lead among these is ‘Ladybug’ (Brad Pitt). As an assassin, he actually makes for a refreshing change. Sure, he can deliver improvised battles to the death where anything within reach is a weapon, but he really prefers not to.
Pitt’s character is conflict adverse, suffering from anxiety, and only accepted the job because, on the face of it, all he had to do is pick up a briefcase.
Leitch jumps around more and more assassins with the kind of freeze frame introduction that goes back into that style over substance thing.
None of this cast grow beyond their one sentence summary, but then it isn’t that kind of film. Yakuza member ‘The Father’ (Andrew Koji) seeks revenge against the seemingly random attack on his son; ‘The Hornet’ (Zazie Beetz) does poisons; The Wolf does, well, killing people, and The Prince (Joey King) is all pink, fluffy, and steel.
Tangerine (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway) stand out due to an amusing bickering relationship.
Both tasked with transporting a feared mob boss’s son, Tangerine’s violent tendencies clash well with Lemon’s laid back philosophizing.
You probably never expected to see everyone’s personality types connected to Thomas the Tank Engine trains, but Lemon goes for it and it makes for a fun thread throughout the movie.
Bullet Train Official Trailer
Is Bullet Train Worth Watching?
The plot, such as it is, seems more an excuse to hoist colourful characters up and have them spark against each other.
As such, the mystery of what is connecting everyone’s presence never really tickles our fancy. Japanophiles will be happy regardless.
What with the usual neon blooms, upbeat soundtrack – until you’ve heard the Bee Gees hit ‘Staying Alive’ in Japanese, have you really heard it? And, well, speedy train, Bullet Train skirts around its lack of Japanese cast by going whole hog on the setting.
With the strength of the movie deriving from Pitt’s excellent performance and unusual character, along with how a contained setting makes for more exciting violence, it is as shame that Leitch alights this winning formula to needlessly up the ante and derail proceedings (sorry, not sorry).
Once CGI takes over and the explosions get big and fiery, then so much of what gave Bullet Train its tasty selling points goes out of the window.
Regardless of a mishandled ending and lack of depth to any of its passengers, Bullet Train is a cathartic locomotion of entertainment.
Crunchy fights satisfy, and snappy dialogue gets the laughs. As the doors slide open you can disembark pleased to have had a journey that quickly and efficiently took you to where you wanted to go.
Words by Mike Record