Bullet Train: What Makes the White Death Scarier Than Most Movie Gangsters

Bullet Train’s White Death is cool, calculated, and ruthless, but his most lethal weapon is overcomplicated revenge plots.

Michael Shannon in Bullet Train
Photo: Sony PIctures

This article contains Bullet Train spoilers.

“Is underthinking a thing?” Brad Pitt’s ironically named professional assassin, Ladybug, ponders in David Leitch’s Bullet Train. It is a surprisingly lucky guess. His ultimate nemesis has already laid out his entire fate, leaving little to chance. The film is played for fun, but the primary antagonist only plays for keeps. White Death, played by Michael Shannon, is the surprise main mobster, and he is a very different breed of gangster than most in the genre. His single-minded approach to score settling is underscored by his multi-pronged attack and that makes him one of the most frightening gang lords in crime comedy. Even when he takes off his mask and slows down for affable explanations, he looks to cut both ways.

Shannon is an extremely versatile actor. So much so, even his many gangster portrayals are individually unique astride a crowded field. On Boardwalk Empire, his journey, as Nelson Van Alden, from federal cop to unhinged enforcer, is paved with seemingly irreconcilable contrasts. Meanwhile Shannon’s Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman is an all-too-real stone-cold killer, but he can move on a dance floor and roll around the floor with his young daughters.

And for all his imposing menace, Shannon’s White Death also has a very human side as well, and that’s where the danger lies. The Yakuza cartel lord is very much in love with, and devoted to, his wife. They have a Son (Logan Lerman) who is heir apparent, and a daughter, who calls herself The Prince (Joey King) and is apparently far better equipped for the family business. But White Death is prepared to destroy his entire family unit when his wife dies.

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A Different Kind of Gang

Now careening off the track on Netflix, Bullet Train is a high velocity crime-movie parody based on Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel Maria Beetle. The film enthusiastically riffs off the rough romance shown by genre favorite Guy Ritchie and the genre’s most vocal champion, Quentin Tarantino. Hired hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) spin a droll British parody of the John Travolta/Samuel L. Jackson dynamic in Pulp Fiction. Sandra Bullock’s Maria is the most enabling professional assassin handler since Julia Roberts’ Patricia Watson in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The Yakuza criminal empire at the center of the film benefits from erratic leadership and quick turnarounds. They can divert all their resources from the business of crime to the personal pursuit of vendetta.

The first thing which becomes apparent while watching Bullet Train is an assuredness that no one even tangentially related to real gangland criminal activity was consulted for it. It is like learning to engineer a train by watching Thomas the Tank Engine. This frees White Death from any obligations to mob chieftains of the many crime genres, or the traditional family honors of criminal enterprise.

White Death was declared too wild for the Russian mob and carries with him a personal mythology of brutal KGB duty. He looms larger than life long before he shows his graying mane, and Bullet Train allows him a Colonel Kurtz-from-Apocalypse Now buildup, ambiance, and charisma.

White Death doesn’t make his entrance until the third act, but his presence permeates the film as we learn his improbable history. He is a seemingly unstoppable Russian fighter who rises in the ranks of the Yakuza, the largest criminal empire in Kyoto, Japan. His brutal bravado gains the trust of the gang’s leader, Yoshio Minegishi (Nobuaki Shimamoto), in spite of the warnings of the organization’s Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Then in Scarface fashion, White Death makes his move, pulling a grisly, well-organized coup and taking no prisoners. In the bloodbath, White Death also murders The Elder’s wife, forcing the trusted longstanding member to go into hiding with his son, Kimura (Andrew Koji).

The Danger Is in the Details

A complete enigma, White Death acts on his own rules, possibly born of superstition, and adding to his personal mythology. If someone tries to assassinate him, for instance, White Death kills the would-be assailant personally, and always uses the intended weapon. He believes fate is something to be grabbed. He takes what’s his with both hands, and an army of turncoat cutthroats.

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It is highly unlikely a former member of the Russian mob would rise in the Yakuza, though the two groups occasionally partnered on lucrative true-life gambling operations. But Bullet Train has an ambiguous relationship with things like reality and luck, and likes to stack the odds. The very premise of the film is a long shot based on an incredibly improbable sequence of events, intermingled in such a convoluted way that even a safecracker from the Oceans 11 team couldn’t unlock it. It is a vengeance plot distorted by both known and unforeseen coincidences, mostly unlucky.

The machinations of the caper on the bullet train build from a complicated blueprint. Lerman’s Son is arrested on the eve of being cut loose from family business. In spite of protests, White Death’s wife dies on her way to post bail because her husband is preoccupied by a mass execution of his men in Bolivia by Lemon and Tangerine. The brotherly duo slaughtered 17 men in a span of a few minutes.

The timing of the massacre and the assassination attempt are purely coincidental, because the mastermind behind the crime lord wife’s death, Carver (Ryan Reynolds), was targeting White Death, and The Son was in on it. In another unrelated coincidence, White Death’s wife could have been saved, but the only surgeon with the skill to perform the miracle operation was all-too recently poisoned by a snake-venom-loving assassin called The Hornet (Zazie Beetz). It is a tangled web, but the Yakuza overseer slices his katana through it with ease.

White Death is a gifted multitasker, and knows how to take advantage of the chaotic remnants of ill-timed misfortune. Examining the evidence, White Death blames his wife’s death on The Son, Carver, Lemon, Tangerine, and The Hornet. Their participation is unrelated, but equally unforgivable. White Death sets up one caper which will take care of them all in a single day. He puts them all on the same job of retrieving a briefcase of cash, and his kidnapped Son, on a Japanese bullet train. White Death figures most of the homicidal specialists will kill each other, and he can dispatch whoever is left when the train arrives at its final destination. 

This kind of maneuver requires the cunning of a Michael Corleone, who decapitated the leadership of the rival families in The Godfather, and saved a special seat for his own brother-in-law, right behind the guy with the garotte, the trusted capo Peter Clemenza (Richard S. Castellano). The Son of White Death has a window seat on Japan’s marvel of transportation. The daughter prefers first class, with kitchen privileges.

The Prince, a wild card in her father’s plans, lives up to her Machiavellian moniker. Her scheme to kill her uncaring dad is as much a Rube Goldberg mouse trap as White Death would scheme up. She has Kimura’s son thrown off a roof to assure he seeks revenge on the bullet train. Her clockwork planning includes timed calls to a killer stalking the child’s hospital ward to ensure obedience. Her most brilliant chain-reaction contraptions jerry-rig the silver briefcase to explode upon opening, and rewire a gun using a bit of jewelry.

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Even in death, White Death bucks trends, however. He shoots himself in the cheek and blows his head in half thanks to his daughter’s traps, not the traditional ending for a mob chief. This is not the first time a cinematic gangster killed himself with a gun which shoots backwards. George Raft did it to himself in a cameo in the 1967 James Bond farce Casino Royale. In Bullet Train, this underscores how dangerous the mob kingpin really is. The only person who can kill White Death is White Death.

Bullet Train can be streamed on Netflix.