David Leitch turns Kotaro Isaka’s novel into nearly poetically choreographed stunts and combat scenes between charismatic and exaggerated characters.
Written by Atlanta Kroehn / August 4, 2022
High-speed bullet trains in Japan rank amongst the safest ways of travel – but not if there are 9 hitmen and assassins on board. What in the beginning feels like John Wick in the Orient Express filmed by TikTok influencers, turns out to be a thrilling, somewhat ironic philosophical survival trip, in which it is unclear who makes it to the end of the train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto.
The parable of the boy, who falls off his horse, injures himself, is pitied and later can be happy about the accident because his injury prevents him from being drafted into war, is not exactly new. To be precise, this story is more than 2200 years old. And yet, elements of it are experiencing a revival on the big screen this summer. Only this time it's not a horse, but Sandra Bullock's sports car and the boy is Brad Pitt running up and down in a high-speed train. Lots and lots of wisdom, self-care mantras and calendar sayings are woven into the 400 km/h fast journey. It stays slightly vague if this is supposed to be heeded or simply parody - either way Bullet Train is fun to watch and a little bit less flat than one would think.
Although he’d rather not, assassin Ladybug (Brad Pitt) finds himself on a mission in the world’s fastest train. His meditative mindset set won’t prevent him from getting into trouble and while he is reflecting on the incredible bad luck that follows him around, he step by step discovers that several lethal opponents keep him company during his voyage. Peculiar coincidence, fate or is maybe something else going on?
Also on the ride: the sweet but deadly dangerous schoolgirl (Joey King) which is basically a Tarantino version of Grace Margaret Mulligan, Bad Bunny enacting a hopeless romantic, two (unlikely related) twin brothers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) with citrus fruit nicknames, a cute and deceitful mascot as well as many other intriguing combatants. The camera underlines all these brilliant actor performances by intense close ups on mimic features.
The quality of the movie reflects especially in the dedication to it’s one-location setting. All protagonists are trapped in the vehicle throughout the storyline. The camera work emphasizes that the fighting takes place in a very small space, with the opponents taking advantage of the materials around them. Furthermore, the camera takes a variety of perspectives, once even following a water bottle.
Even though the product placement for Fiji water is a bit much, the sequence of a personalized drinking bottle is an interesting take that adds another point to the central theme of fateful connections. The tone of the film regarding fate may not be entirely clear, as it oscillates between pathetic calendar sayings and profound criticism of self-optimization mania.
One can for sure criticize the often wanna-be-voke punchlines. Further, the question arises as to whether the choices in cast represents a form of whitewashing of the Japanese novel the film is based on. Nevertheless, the story not necessarily is inherently Japanese, but a universal metaphor.
Bullet Train is a fast-paced ride that one can more or less interpret into and which is only halted by flashbacks that mirror each other, stunning outside shots of the train and the surrounding landscapes, and perfectly choreographed sequences at the train stops.
I suggest heading as quickly as a bullet train to the cinema now. However, for everyone who is up for more serious train movies – how about Snowpiercer (2013), Orient Express (1974) or Mystery Train (1989); and for everyone who finds a one-location film as a parable intriguing – what about The Father (2020), Dogville (2003) or The Guilty (2021).