Mass Murder on an Oriental Express
Is it my imagination or are we still seeing a dearth of really big popcorny movies at the moment? It might make sense: given the long lead-times involved in a really big film, the blockbusters of 2022 would probably have been in the works a couple of years ago, which was of course the height of the recent unpleasantness. Perhaps it's telling that the biggest film of the year so far, the Top Gun sequel, was originally slated for a 2019 release and was made pre-virus. In any case, the result seems to be that more oddball movies are enjoying a high profile this year.
Such as David Leitch's Bullet Train, which kind of resembles the kind of high-concept genre movie that usually surfaces in the spring or autumn. But here we are in August – this is probably due to the presence of some proper A-list stars and a director whose last few movies have all done rather well for themselves.
As the title might lead you to expect, the film is set in Japan, and mostly takes place on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto. Enjoying the sights of the capital at the start of the movie is a bucket-hatted dude who goes by the codename of Ladybug (he is played by Brad Pitt); Ladybug is a philosophically-inclined, firearm-averse freelance security operative, recently returned after taking some time out for personal reasons. (He is guided about his business by his handler-cum-life-coach, played by a mostly unseen Sandy Bullock.) Ladybug's new assignment is to board the titular locomotive and steal a briefcase containing a large sum of money, ideally with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed. What could be simpler?
Well, quite a few things, as it turns out: the money is the recovered ransom fee for the recently-rescued son of a terrifying international crime lord (Michael Shannon), who is on the train and being babysat by an unlikely couple of brothers who go by the nicknames Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); one of them happened to shoot Ladybug in a non-significant manner a few years earlier. Also on the train is a grief-stricken and vengeful Mexican gang leader known as the Wolf, a notorious poisoner codenamed the Hornet, a master-manipulator going by the title of Prince, and various other assassins and mercenaries all with their own conflicting agendas.
If that seems a fairly unlikely scenario to you, then I commend you for your astuteness; it's fair to say we are not in the realm of the reality-adjacent action movie here. Bullet Train is the kind of fantastical beat-'em-up which is at least aware of its own unlikeliness, and indeed leans into it somewhat. But then the briefest glance at the CV of David Leitch could have told you as much – he co-directed the first John Wick, and went on to do Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs squiggle Shaw, none of which are films that anyone would describe as having a stranglehold on reality.
We're not that far into the film before the first of Pitt's fellow passengers tries to punch his ticket in a pretty terminal way, from which point the film progresses in frenetic style. There is something rather commendable about the intricate plotting of the story, absurd though it is: this is the action movie performed as farce, with set-piece fights and shoot-outs taking the place of the usual pratfalls and sight-gags. It's also inventive enough to keep most of the major characters alive until the third act, which is no mean feat considering that nearly everyone's main objective is to kill someone else (or, indeed, everyone else).
There is, as you'd expect, a significant level of violence and gore as the film progresses, though nothing too extreme (although by most people's standards I have probably become quite desensitised to this sort of thing). Some of the visual stylings are a little bit hackneyed, and there's an element of fetishisation as far as Japanese culture is concerned (mostly in a superficial way); this is all really just to say that the film functions in a kind of para-Tarantino manner, though it is thankfully free of pretensions to being high art; there, is, however, one extremely protracted running gag based on a fairly unlikely cultural reference – on one level, there is a kind of logic to a film set on a train including an extended allusion to Thomas the Tank Engine, but, on the other hand, if the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was still alive, the shock of having his creations co-opted by a film like this would most likely kill him.
The film does come across as frantic and colourful and more than a bit silly; I did actually find myself wondering what the point of it was while I was watching it. The closest it gets to having any kind of depth or underpinning comes by way of some rather laborious ruminations on the workings of fate and destiny – Ladybug is frequently bewailing his own consistently bad luck, Prince is quite smug about being blessed in quite the opposite manner, some of the other characters pause to reflect on the sheer unlikeliness of everything that is going on (the ridiculous coincidences more than anything else), and so on. It's a pretty thin pretext for a serious movie.
Then again you could certainly argue that Bullet Train isn't really a serious film, it's too far-fetched and cartoony for that. This is not to say that most of the performances aren't well-pitched and effective; Pitt and many of the other members of the cast certainly manage to lift the material. The production values are good, and I did find myself laughing a lot of the time. But on the other hand this doesn't feel like a film with a burning need to exist – it's a collection of ideas from films like Kill Bill, Train to Busan, and Free Fire all jumbled together and touched up in the hope that nobody will notice it's actually quite a derivative piece of work. I can see why Bullet Train has struggled at the box office – it's good as what it is, but as what it wants to be, it's just not quite good enough.