1997 called and wants its Quentin Tarantino knockoff back. That’s the bottom line on Bullet Train, a new dark comedy/thriller directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Hobbs and Shaw). Overlong, tedious, and endlessly self-satisfied, this is a movie that thinks it’s funny to score a montage of violence to an Engelbert Humperdinck song (which is announced as it happens).
Even 25 years ago, the idea got stale fast as one Tarantino wannabe after another tried and failed to emulate the original. The film thinks it’s being clever, but the mix of pop culture-drenched, faux-savvy dialogue, ironic and plentiful needle drops, “look at me” cameos, and cartoon-y violence was a lot better back when QT was first doing it.
Based on a novel by Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, the movie is slightly enlivened by hard-working performances from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, and Brian Tyree Henry, as well as some striking design and cinematography, but when a movie only identifies its inch-deep characters by cutesy nicknames like Ladybug, Lemon, and Tangerine – all of whom are supposedly deadly assassins, by the way – one knows that the character development is all but invisible.
Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, the kind of amiable, chatty goofball Pitt has been developing for a few years now as his go-to persona, verging on the edge of self-parody. Via earpiece conversations with his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock), we know that Ladybug is in therapy and looking for some peace in his life (he’s more Dude than Gray Man). So his new mission – jump aboard a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, steal a briefcase (it’s always a briefcase), and get off at the next stop – seems relatively simple.
Of course, that’s not how it goes, and the rest of the needlessly convoluted plot ping-pongs repeatedly between flashbacks, coincidences, and chance encounters that are weak substitutes for a real story and dramatization. Said briefcase is being guarded by two hitmen (Taylor-Johnson and Henry) who are also protecting the recently kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of a vicious crime lord named the White Death (cue surprise cameo). The briefcase contains the son’s ransom money and the White Death wants both back.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocuous young woman (King) is also aboard the train with an agenda of her own, which involves a man named Kimura (Andrew Koji) who is seeking vengeance for the attempted murder of his own son. How the two are connected, and how they relate to the other stories and growing list of criminals and assassins boarding the train (which include Zazie Beetz and Bad Bunny), eventually comes to light – but you’ve stopped caring long before then.
The movie is overly self-aware, with the characters making their little jokes and then almost waiting a beat for the unseen audience to laugh. But the gags fall mostly flat, the dialogue is overbearing (Henry’s character constantly references kiddie icon Thomas the Tank Engine for his philosophy of life, which is perhaps meant to be funny but just ends up being annoying), and the action gets increasingly ludicrous.
For the entire two-plus hours, Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz trot all this nonsense out proudly as if they think they’re blowing our minds with their smirking audaciousness and clever post-modern wit. But it’s all tricks we’ve seen dozens of times before, not just from Tarantino, but from Guy Ritchie, Joe Carnahan, John Herzfeld, and others. Even the technical aspects we mentioned earlier and Leitch’s confident fight choreography don’t help much, especially as the latter grow increasingly overblown.
Pitt floats through this with just enough charisma to stay watchable, while Taylor-Johnson and Henry come off best as the pair of fruit-named assassins whose relationship we’re not completely sure about until late in the game. They manage to wring a drop of humanity out of their characters, which is more than anyone else can say. We couldn’t tell you how the cast translates from the novel itself, although it seems that most of the characters are now Caucasian instead of Japanese.
As for its uniquely Japanese setting (albeit shot on sound stages in Culver City, California), one never gets the sense of how fast the train is moving since that’s all CG anyway (even the handful of scenes where someone actually hangs outside the train, defying gravity and belief). The players move from car to car but we never get a true idea of where they are or how each car connects to the next.
In the end, it’s all a blur, a bore, and an irritating example of filmmaking that is super-pleased with itself yet soulless and amounting to nothing. “I’ve gotta get off this train,” Pitt’s Ladybug keeps whining, over and over again, and we couldn’t agree more.
Bullet Train is in theaters now.