An ostensible action film that is so light on well-crafted fights one hesitates to even classify it as such, Bullet Train can best be described as a low-rent Quentin Tarantino imitation though without anything of its own to stand on. The film is oddly grating and increasingly one note to the point of being obnoxious. Most egregiously, it just isn't all that fun. What little joy there is to be had with some of the committed cast soon fades into the background when buried under a mountain of superficial schtick. It succeeds only at being the summer's biggest missed opportunity.
Based on the 2010 novel Maria Beetle by mystery writer Ktar Isaka with a screenplay by Fear Street 1978 co-writer Zak Olkewicz, the story centers on a former assassin named Ladybug who is trying to reform himself. He is buffoonish man with a bucket hat besought by either good or bad luck, depending on how you look at it. Played by Brad Pitt in rare, though not necessarily good, form as he coasts on making the same version of a joke about self-help ad nauseum. When Ladybug gets drawn in for what may be one last job that requires him to steal a briefcase from a high-speed train, he'll soon discover that he is essentially trapped in the confines of the cars with a quirky cast of killers.
There is the duo of Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Tangerine and Brian Tyree Henry's Lemon who spend most of their time bickering about how to handle their own mission. Then there is Joey King as Prince, a manipulative young girl with her own mysterious agenda, and Bad Bunny as Wolf, a heartbroken hitman out for revenge. They aren't the only ones as there are plenty of unexpected appearances from familiar faces who leap into the fray. Some are mere cameos, inserted for lackluster throwaway jokes, while others become more central to the experience.
Directed by David Leitch, a veteran stunt coordinator whose work on the original John Wick and 2017's Atomic Blonde would lead one to believe this new film could pack similarly kinetic action. Not only does it not rise to that level, it seems to actively undercut and even downplay the action elements. Whenever a fight sequence will get going, the film will either dilute it with another so-so joke or sometimes just cut away entirely. Each battle becomes more about hollow slapstick than well-crafted stunts, failing to craft any memorable moments. If you were looking for the ballet of brutality of John Wick or anything resembling the stunning one-take stairway fight of Atomic Blonde, you best look elsewhere.
The actors are the only saving graces, some of whom manage to keep things moving despite the shoddy story they've been saddled with. Henry in particular could read a phonebook and still be a magnetic screen presence. Most known for his role in the hit show Atlanta, he is both comedic and heartfelt even when the rest of the film is not. Unfortunately, the cast's talents are often left underutilized. Most bafflingly, there is the blink-and-you-miss-it presence of Karen Fukuhara (The Boys), who never gets anything to do despite her dynamic screen presence in past projects.
By the time the story coalesces and we learn that this ensemble cast of characters have more in common than they realize, the revelation lands with a thud. Even with some flashes of flair, the Bullet Train experience is surprisingly tame, never embracing the possibility of its premise or setting. There are good films that show how to make use of the confined space of a train to their advantage like Train to Busan or Snowpiercer. Those films felt bold whereas this just goes through the motions on its belabored and far too long journey to nowhere. Even with all the potential to really go wild, Bullet Train ends up being a mishmash of superior movies that never offers anything remotely exciting of its own. ♦