Bullet Train: Two Smoking Brain Cells, by David Bax
Somehow, the standard for comedy in major studio pictures has sunk so low that a jaded “Really?” can completely take the place of an actual joke or retort and audiences don’t riot. It’s easy to blame the early-MCU Favreau/Whedon movies for this but really it’s the fact that, over a decade ago, people saw a kind of disaffected quippiness actually work in those movies and thought it would be easy to replicate. And we let them off the hook! Anyway, that’s about the level of humor you can expect from the entirety of David Leitch‘s new action “comedy,” Bullet Train.
Take that lazy self-satisfaction and mix it with a candy colored aesthetic and a few CGI drums of CGI blood and the end result is almost perfectly obnoxious. At 127 minutes, Bullet Train is too long. But it feels like it’s hours too long.
With its loquacious (and often British) criminals with their own intersecting and overlapping missions, Bullet Train is most immediately identifiable as a retread of the movies that made Guy Ritchie famous, like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as well as their many imitators. The character introductions, each of which include a graphic title announcing “The Elder,” “The Wolf,” “The Hornet,” etc. are particularly reminiscent of this era. But Ritchie himself was very obviously inspired by the talkative killers in Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. That filmmaker’s popular culture-referencing influence is obvious here too, especially with the surprisingly prevalent discussion of Thomas the Tank Engine.
Bullet Train is, for the most part, an ensemble. But there is one clear lead, Brad Pitt‘s Ladybug. His quirk (everybody’s gotta have one!) is peppering his speech of bits of therapized self-care pablum. He’s trying to become more enlightened about his life as a career criminal/murderer. This is how we arrive at the closest thing the movie has to a theme, the invocation of concepts such as fate, karma and luck. But the screenplay (adapted by Zac Olkewicz from the book by Kôtarô Isaka) doesn’t have anything to say about these ideas. They’re just sprinkled throughout to try to keep the whole thing together.
After being an uncredited co-director on John Wick, Leitch first official feature was 2017’s Atomic Blonde. That movie worked, perhaps partially because it didn’t try to be funny but more so because it was full of skilled, creative fight choreography, often presented in long takes (or faked long takes with invisible cuts) that allowed you to see it all unfold. Bullet Train, on the other hand, has short bursts of action which play out in quick cuts that obscure what’s happening and are often assisted by cartoonish CGI. It doesn’t work as an action movie any better than it works as a comedy.
It would be dishonest of me, though, to pretend that there was nothing whatsoever that I liked about Bullet Train. The costumes, by Sarah Evelyn, are very cool.