Let’s talk about Bullet Train.
The big action film is back. Thanks to how incredible John Wick was, proper R-Rated action films which focus on elaborate fist and gunfights have been getting in the cinemas more and more. It’s been great. Films like Atomic Blonde and Nobody have been fantastic to see in the cinema and give an audience who want to see something with a bit more impact than your CGI battles that dominate in Marvel films. Of course the question is as the trend continues to grow and more and more films are made, all with some questionable link to John Wick like how they shared the same catering crew, will the films continue to be quality? We will ask that question of Bullet Train.
Ladybug is an assassin with a very simple joke, get a briefcase that is on the bullet train. The problem is that the train is filled with other assassins with their own missions which soon start to clash.
So in essence, we have a classic conceit. A lot of characters are packed into a claustrophobic setting and as the plot gets going, they all end up at each other’s throats. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express, except there’s a lot more murders and the ending isn’t completely bullshit and irritating. The film is aided in this by making all the characters very broad. Brad Pitt is Ladybug, the unluckiest assassin who seems to some how survive despite seemingly haven broken several mirrors in his lifetime. Then you have the twins with one of them having an obsession over using Thomas the Tank Engine to judge what type of person you are. You also have the Prince, who is a young woman who feels pulled right out of an anime and also is the luckiest person around so you can see what’s coming. The characters are lively and entertaining and alongside a script that gives everyone a smart one-liner in the barrel of their gun, it means the film stays entertaining.
Then there’s the action. This is also great. David Leitch is the director, and he was one of the people who directed John Wick. So at the very least, the poster doesn’t have to boast that they got the sound guy from that film to work on this one. But you can definitely see it in the action. It would have been very easy for the action to get dull and repetitive by having it all set on a train but Leitch does a good job varying things. He manages to make the Bullet Train itself into a vibrant setting by making all the carriages into their own little worlds. You have your standard train carriages for sure, but then you have this anime/manga themed one with people dressed up and a fancy private carriage which ends up being a cool setting for a lot of the fights. And on those fights, there’s a good mixture of standard fist fights plus the involvement of knives, guns and snakes. That makes them very good and entertaining whenever they pop up.
So this is shaping up to be a very good movie at the moment. The problem is balance. This is an action movie first and foremost, so I’m wanting a load of cool action scenes. But the film doesn’t give us enough. You get a lot of talking, and as stylish and characterful as the film is, a lot of the talking is basically just exposition, and then you get impatient because you want some action in your action movie. Then you get some fighting and you enjoy it because it’s very well done. But after a couple of minutes it’s over without your appetite for it being satisfied. It’s like when you’re at a restaurant and you end up having to wait an hour for your meal to be served. The ambience is lovely and the wait staff get you drinks, but it’s frustrating to be waiting that long. Then you get your meal and it’s brilliant, everything you wanted. But the portion is tiny and you aren’t full. You order a dessert but then you get than sinking feeling knowing that you’ll be waiting ages for that too. And because you’re waiting even more now, it’s even more frustrating. The dessert is really good though, even if again you aren’t full. Then you end up getting some chips from a McDonalds on the way home just to get full. Or watch Roadhouse. Either works. It does at least go toe-to-toe with Shrek 2 for the best use of Holding out for a Hero, so that’s something.
There are some other frustrating things too. The film wants to be really clever with its plot set up but when you start thinking about it, it doesn’t work. Take the boomslang snake. This is a very deadly snake and at the start of a film, a TV broadcast indicates one has gone missing from Tokyo zoo. This is obviously Chekhov’s snake and that it will appear in the movie at some point. Apologies for the spoilers but it’s later revealed one of the assassins on the train uses boomslang poison as her trademark. But when you think about, this is mad. If boomslang poison is her thing, why did she have to steal one? Surely she’d have one for stock? Or does she steal a boomslang everywhere she goes? That feels like she’s adding a lot of risk being caught. It’s stuff like this which fills the film and makes it annoying to think about in hindsight.
I do quite like Bullet Train. I’m a sucker for an action film that has witty dialogue and buckets of styles. And having the location be on the bullet train with all the related Japanese theming that goes with it is an inspired choice. It’s definitely better than setting it on the Northern Line between Sheffield and Leeds, mostly because the film would be halted in its tracks when it inevitably breaks down in Castleford. But there’s a lot of problems that stop it being as good as it could have been. The balance between the action and dialogue is all wrong, as if you’re going to have it teeter in one direction at least make it the one which your film is claiming it to be. It also think it’s far cleverer than it actually is and it’s various plot set-ups as as manufactured as American cheese. It’s a huge missed opportunity to make something truly brilliant.