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Bullet Train review: Frantically-paced actioner is a mixed bag

Brad Pitt leads the cast for this summer blockbuster from John Wick co-director David Leitch.

Brad Pitt in Bullet Train
Sony
Published: Wednesday, 3rd August 2022 at 12:20 pm
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A star rating of 3 out of 5.

Screeching into cinemas, sparks flying, this eagerly-anticipated, sometimes frantically-paced actioner comes courtesy of stuntman-turned-director David Leitch. Leitch began his directorial career as the uncredited co-helmer of game changer John Wick, following it up in intermittently impressive style with Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw.

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Earlier in his career, Leitch was a frequent stunt double for this film’s star, Brad Pitt, and he directs him superbly here, providing a platform for one of the actor’s funniest performances. Pitt plays a misfortune-magnet hitman, codenamed Ladybug by his silky-voiced handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, mostly unseen). Currently residing in Japan, he’s been taking some time off and has undergone a spiritual awakening of sorts, with his attempts at relaying Eastern wisdom generating plenty of laughs.

Now ready to return to work, Ladybug picks up the titular train in Tokyo. His mission: securing a briefcase which is currently in the possession of a pair of British assassins, Lemon and Tangerine, played in the Bullet Train cast by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who have been tasked with protecting the son of ruthless Russian gangster the White Death (the son is played by Logan Lerman, as for the White Death himself, well, you’ll see). Despite the pair’s best efforts, which include killing 17 people to free the young man from his kidnappers, they quickly fall foul of their employer.

Also onboard is an English-accented assassin, Prince (Joey King). In a bid to take down the White Death, Prince is posing as a schoolgirl and blackmailing Yuichi (Andrew Koji), who works for the elusive crime lord and whose young son she pushed off a rooftop. Hiroyuki Sanada plays Yuichi’s formidable father, known only as ‘The Elder’, who we meet at his grandson’s hospital bedside at the outset, and who will prove very useful.

If things sound convoluted, they most certainly are, with montages of explanation and ultra-violence tasked with rushing us through the bloody backstory. It’s a system that mostly conveys what’s needed in little intense bursts, but there are points where keeping up with such a contrived and chaotic plot feels headache-inducing and the film works better in its simpler, more slapstick-esque moments of action or comedy.

Although the sheer volume of quirky features thrown at us is initially off-putting (there’s a Thomas the Tank Engine gag that runs out of steam very quickly), Bullet Train settles affably into its stride, helped immeasurably by a charming trio of turns from Pitt, Henry and Taylor-Johnson, with the latter’s cockney swagger a thing of absurd beauty. The script from Zak Olkewicz isn’t always the sharpest – Lemon and Tangerine’s blokey banter veers dangerously close to Guy Ritchie territory at points – yet the stars make it sing as much as possible.

The film has been accused of whitewashing the Japanese source material it is based on, Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel MariaBeetle, with the main characters now improbably Americans and Brits, despite the retention of the original setting. Its critics have a point. Bullet Train clearly hopes to emulate Quentin Tarantino’s more successful fusion of Eastern and Western cinema in the Kill Bill films, but feels far less knowledgeable and reverential. If Leitch and Olkewicz lack Tarantino’s nous, there’s some outlandish style and surges of energy and, even given the predominantly humorous tone, Leitch’s handling of the action sequences is never lacking in punch.

Despite the constraints of the space, train-based action can prove hugely fruitful – 2013’s wildly imaginative, difficult-to-top feature Snowpiercer (which spun off into a series) and the marvellously surging 2016 zombie flick Train to Busan being amongst the best recent examples. This isn’t those; Bullet Train is too cartoony for much to be at stake, with the Japanese family drama that opens proceedings and that should form its beating heart largely pushed to the sidelines, and with it the more emotionally committed performances of Koji and Sanada.

As the narrative threads are brought together in not particularly persuasive fashion, Leitch tries to distract us by piling on the effects-heavy carnage in the final throes. But, honestly, he’d have been better off sticking with the smaller stuff. It’s the detail in Pitt’s delivery that keeps it on track.

Bullet Train is showing in UK cinemas. If you’re looking for something to watch tonight, check out our TV Guide or visit our Movies hub for all the latest news.

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