Back in May, I sat down with my friends at “No Rest for the Weekend,” where we discussed our favorite films and TV shows to that point (guess what we all agreed on as the absolute best), as well as our most anticipated titles for the back half of the year. You can read the blog post and watch the video here. Please give them some love. I listed five I was really looking forward to, with the first two releases — The Black Phone and Nope — certainly living up to the hype in my mind. Both of those films are currently in my Top 5 for the year.
This weekend saw the release of the third on my list, Bullet Train, teased as a hilarious and ultraviolent confluence of assassins, bathed in a stylized neon glow. Boasting an all-star cast, this looked to be the non-franchise blockbuster of the summer, adapted from an extremely popular Japanese novel called “Maria Beetle” (the codename of the largely unseen handler of our protagonist; she’s voiced by Sandra Bullock in a fairly thankless role), which was renamed “Bullet Train” for its English-language release, presumably to align with the movie, as the adaptation process began a year before the Western publication.
When it comes to the individual elements of the film, I think it mostly succeeds. There are much more positive aspects than there are negative. But there’s one major shortfall that stops the movie from being truly great. It is entertaining, and if you decide to turn your brain off, you’ll probably enjoy it quite a bit, but that doesn’t change the fact that overall, this project thinks its way more clever than it is, and the larger work suffers because of it.
The story takes place on the titular high-speed train on its route between Tokyo and Kyoto, which takes just over two hours. On the surface, this might seem like a bit of a wink, as the film’s runtime pretty much lines up with that. However, it ends up being one of the many things that simply don’t make sense, as the movie begins with the train leaving Tokyo at night from a particularly busy station and ends well after sunrise. Now you might think, maybe it was a late night ride that carries over into the early morning. To which I’d reply, then why are the stations so crowded? There’s no way they’d be this full of people at, say, 3am. Also, a cursory look at Shinkansen’s website, where one would book tickets for this train, shows the earliest departure is 6am, with the latest being 9:30pm. It’s literally impossible for this particular ride to exist. It certainly looks cool for the climax to feature the train running into the rising sun, but even that doesn’t work, as Kyoto is southwest from Tokyo, so the sun would be rising behind the train if it were accurately represented. And even if there are shots of the sun in the rear of the train, the brightness of it so early in the morning would also render it nonsensical.
Anyway, there are three interconnected stories coming together on this train. By the advertising, the primary take is for a hitman codenamed “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt), who after some time out of the game is given the seemingly simple task of boarding the train, snatching a briefcase onboard, and getting off at the first stop. Lemon squeezy. That case begins in the possession of two British assassins called “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Henry) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who have been tasked with the safe transport of the case, along with the kidnapped son of a local crime boss (Logan Lerman as “The Son,” Michael Shannon as his father, a Russian crime lord known as “White Death”). Meanwhile, a low-level grunt named Yuichi Kimura, aka “The Father” (Andrew Koji) has been lured onto the train by “The Prince” (Joey King, who apparently is only allowed to play characters named after royal titles now), a manipulative killer who pushed Yuichi’s son off a roof, threatening his young life. Feeling shame from his own father (Hiroyuki Sanada, “The Elder”) and lamenting his failure to protect his offspring, Yuichi allows himself to be held hostage by “The Prince” in exchange for his son’s life, so she can get her hands on the briefcase as well, having her own designs for the film’s MacGuffin.
This is a tremendous cast all around, but there’s something noticeably off about them, namely how not Japanese the vast majority of them are. I’m not as big a stickler for forced representation or diversity as some others are, but this is a case where the problem is glaring. In the original novel, essentially all the main players are Japanese. This makes sense, given its creation. I understand the idea of “Westernizing” to a certain extent in order to appeal to American audiences, but a lot of the characterization doesn’t make sense. Brian Tyree Henry and Joey King are both American, so why make them British? Further, why are there so many extended cameos from North American actors (namely Ryan Reynolds and Channing Tatum) who otherwise would have no business in this story? I mean, the answer is for a cheap joke, but it gets to the point where basically a snack cart operator and a ticket-taker are the only ones outside the Father/Prince story arc to actually be Japanese. The climax even features exposition about how the “White Death” has masked minions from all over the world to accommodate a gag — admittedly a funny one — where two mercenaries (played by Garland Scott and Jason Matthew Smith) can provide meta commentary as Americans.
I’m not saying this is whitewashing, but the casting choices from a demographic standpoint stick out way more in this particular setting than they would elsewhere, and apart from maybe Pitt, there’s no plot-based reason for any of it. Hell, assassins are supposed to be able to blend in to their surroundings, but everyone here is about as conspicuous as can be, and any sensible local passenger would be reporting them for suspicious behavior, blowing everyone’s cover fairly quickly. Perhaps that’s why, as the plot goes on, the other passengers simply start vanishing, the reason for that hand-waved with a late line of dialogue.
Setting that aside, however, the bulk of the cast gives pretty fun performances, playing off each other with cheeky dialogue and knowing glances. Joey King in particular gets to shine, to the point that the other assassins essentially break the fourth wall to compliment her on how well she sells her “innocent schoolgirl” angle (remember what I said recently about giving her decent material to work with). The interplay between Lemon and Tangerine as longtime partners and surrogate brothers is charming and quite funny. Pitt himself has the bulk of the great lines, mostly commenting on the absurdity of what’s going on around him.
This ties in nicely with the visual touches of the film. The fight choreography is solid given the tight space of the train’s environment, and while there is excessive jump-cutting during the action sequences, it’s not nearly the level of egregious that Marvel churns out every couple of months. When the movie is essentially a high-stakes, goofy game of deadly “Musical Chairs,” it really is a blast. The bright, neon aesthetic and a soundtrack that includes Japanese covers of songs like “Stayin’ Alive” and “Holding Out for a Hero” only aid in this.
Unfortunately, the real core issue is with the screenplay, written by Zak Olkewicz, who previously penned the second entry in the Fear Street trilogy, which was the lowest quality of the three (though the trilogy as a whole was still great). While a good amount of the dialogue is crisp and funny, the overall plot structure is completely fucked. First of all, the story is told almost completely out of order, starting with Yuichi’s story even though he’s very much not the central focus, and it constantly cuts to side- and back-stories whenever a new character is introduced, even ones who are utterly wasted in two-minute roles like those played by Zazie Beetz and Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, better known as the rapper, “Bad Bunny.” Along with that, given the establishment that the train has 16 cars (10 economy, 6 first class, though this basically never comes into play), you can never tell where anyone is at a given moment. For a film with such an enclosed setting, one that by its very nature goes super fast in as straight a line as possible to a destination, the story is bafflingly indirect. It’s like Olkewicz is trying to write a Quentin Tarantino movie without realizing he’s nowhere near that level of narrative skill. I’m not saying he can’t get there, but he most assuredly is not there right now.
Further, in some areas of the movie, there are failures of even the most basic writing techniques. Several “Chekhov’s Guns” are established early on, but only one of them goes off in any meaningful way. One of the film’s biggest reveals is treated as a joke, rendering much of the tension built up around it utterly meaningless. Hell, one of the most crucial bits of character exposition is relayed to us in the audience, clearly setting up what could have been a huge twist, and instead it goes nowhere. In fairness, I don’t think there was really a way to stick the landing on that last note, as when the hint was delivered, my initial reaction was that the eventual resolution would be way too obvious, but at least then Olkewicz would have paid off the setup. Instead the idea is largely abandoned.
But what really sticks in my craw is the over-reliance on the idea of “luck” or “fate.” When it comes to Ladybug, there’s a modicum of charm in the idea. He’s a snatch-and-grab hitman who eschews violence whenever necessary, but can hold his own with lethal results if it comes to it. He’s established as having been on something of a sabbatical to take stock of his life and find a more Zen-like approach to everything, including his work. Part of this is because he believes he’s preternaturally unlucky, with even the simplest of jobs resulting in some kind of convoluted complication, even though he’s always successful in the end.
That’s all well and good for him, but that mantra is expanded to the entire cast, to the point that in every other scene, someone is commenting on whether they have good or bad luck in a given moment, with every outcome being a verdict rendered by the universe on that very front, as if karma itself is direct and timely in all things. And that, my friends, is just lazy as fuck.
There is no such thing as luck in a movie, or really any fictional story. The writer is 100% in control of where people go and what they do. He decides which characters live or die, succeed or fail, learn lessons or carry on with no personal growth. It’s all up to him. So every time some random set of bullshit occurs, it’s not “luck,” it’s Zak Olkewicz deploying a cheap deus ex machina and using a buzzword to wave it off as it’s not just another contrivance he himself has made up to advance the proceedings.
And again, this could have worked if it was limited to Pitt’s character occasionally quipping that maybe today is his lucky day because he survived what would normally not be a survivable situation. But when it extends to everyone, to the point where they’re all asserting themselves as being the one truly favored by the unseen hand of fate, it’s just irritating in the extreme.
Compare this to one of cinema’s greatest scenes involving the concept, the famous “Do I feel lucky?” scene from Dirty Harry. In this gorgeously crafted scene FROM 50 YEARS AGO, Clint Eastwood delivers the iconic lines about whether he shot six times or only five, and asks the prone “punk” bleeding on the sidewalk if he feels lucky. But the scene clearly establishes that there is nothing random going on. Harry Callahan knows how many times he fired his gun, but he’s giving this person a chance to save their own skin. Yes, he did fire six times, and as such his gun is empty. But there is still a shotgun within arm’s reach of the criminal, and depending on which action he takes, Callahan already knows how he’s going to react. If he pulls his hand back, which he ends up doing, then Harry can just pick up the shotgun and walk away. If he reaches for it, then Harry has to take evasive action and use physical contact to subdue him, or pick up the shotgun himself and finish the guy off. Either way, he’s got the situation well in hand, and he invokes the idea of luck as a means to show just how in control he really is, but there is absolutely no luck involved. There is a gamble in pulling this tactic, as there’s a worst case scenario where the bad man is able to grab the gun and fire before Harry can react, but it’s a calculus he’s already made in his mind when he decides to take action. Nothing in this scenario can happen randomly, which is why the scene is one of the most memorable in film history.
Compare that with this movie, where literally every plot beat is met with someone making a declaration as to whether fate or luck is on their side. Even the moments where a character’s actions directly lead to a certain outcome, they’re right there to proclaim that it was their good fortune that made it happen, and absolutely none of it is satisfying. I think it’s meant to be a running gag, but if it is, it’s in no way clever, and is instead actively annoying, because in using this as the core narrative conceit, the writer is telling us that nothing matters other than his own whim. Now, that’s true in any storytelling situation, but the trick is in making the story feel like it could happen naturally, without outside influence. And the way Olkewicz composes this script, basically everything is outside influence, and it just fundamentally fails.
This is a fun movie when it’s allowed to just be fun. There’s good action, vivid characters, and an engaging visual style. And despite the shortcomings of the story, the dialogue itself is largely on point. But man, do those shortcomings weigh a lot of this down. It’s not often that one single faulty aspect can scuttle the entire proceedings, but this comes damn close. If there was any sort of coherent structure to this screenplay, or any kind of logic to the characters’ actions outside the nebulous motivation of luck, this could have been one of the best films of the year. Instead, it’s merely passable, dopey popcorn fare where you have to suspend disbelief to an insane degree. It’s still pretty okay, but for one of the most anticipated films for me this year, it’s a huge disappointment.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever been on a bullet train? What would you do if you saw two adult men arguing about Thomas the Tank Engine? Let me know!