Few things are more beautiful than an action film set largely in one place. Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard. The tenement in The Raid. The bus in Speed. And now: the bullet train in Bullet Train. Limitations give art its character, and when it comes to an action movie, confining said action to one space gives the cast and crew the focus to really bring it. They have to use every tool at their disposal to convey every square inch of that space to the audience, so they’ll better appreciate what happens when it all falls to pieces as the combatants carouse from one end to the other.
Bullet Train is a bit of a swerve for director David Leitch, half of the duo responsible for John Wick. This time out, Leitch eschews the precision of Wick and meanness of his solo debut, Atomic Blonde, for something a bit more akin to his work directing Deadpool 2. In his hands, Bullet Train is a Looney Tunes-esque actioner with a buzzy cast playing a batch of goofy assassins all on the same train to Kyoto, and all after the same briefcase.
Brad Pitt plays the protagonist, codenamed Ladybug, a preposterously unlucky, semi-retired hitman who’s mostly interested in snatch-and-grab jobs these days. Ladybug boards the titular transport intending to grab a briefcase and exit, an ostensibly easy job that he doesn’t think he’ll even need a gun for. Besides, killing really harshes his newly found Zen vibes and positive outlook — which he’s happy to talk about at every turn, even with people actively trying to murder him.
As Ladybug’s attempts to exit the train are derailed over and over by the arrival of new players, each of them is introduced with a Guy Ritchie-style title card, a snappy codename, and a hint of a backstory that Bullet Train will almost always flash back to. The Wolf (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Puerto Rican trap phenom Bad Bunny) is a Mexican assassin out for revenge. Lemon (Eternals’ Brian Tyree Henry), a British assassin with an affinity for Thomas the Tank Engine, has a mission that extends beyond the briefcase. So does his brother and partner in crime, Tangerine (Kick-Ass star Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bruiser who loves dapper suits. Meanwhile, the mysterious, lethal Prince (The Princess star Joey King) pursues her own agenda while pretending to be an innocent schoolgirl.
All these characters, Ladybug included, are sketched out with the thinnest of details — they’re a collection of quirks and cliches. But each actor makes the most of Zak Olkewicz’s hurried script adapting Kotaro Isaka’s novel. And the action does more to endear the audience to these characters than any of the film’s many hit-or-miss jokes. (There are so many, a few are bound to hit.)
Fights in Bullet Train are brief and full of character, with blows in the place of (or alongside) quips and Jackie Chan-esque prop work. Inspired staging, like a seated scuffle between Ladybug and Lemon in the train’s quiet car (a centerpiece of the film’s trailers), is some of the best of what Bullet Train has to offer, with John Wick-style choreographic precision employed in the service of comedy. The worst of the film is when it abandons that precision for bombast, like in its wildly destructive finale, which is kind of expected, but still disappointing.
As Ladybug, Pitt is a tremendously fun action hero, an annoying guy who clearly just discovered therapy and The Power of Positive Thinking in the same week. The biggest joy of Bullet Train is watching the apologetic choreography of Ladybug’s fights, as he alternates between open-palmed peacemaking and accidental murder. He really doesn’t want to beat the shit out of anyone; it’s just that they’re all so committed to killing him, you know?
Cartoonish as it is, Bullet Train is committed to letting its core cast make as big an impression as they can through quirks and fights, as Olkewicz’s knotty script ping-pongs between past and present. The film is presented as a mystery — there’s a John Wick-style legend of a Russian gangster who rose through the ranks of the Japanese underworld, and it ties into several characters’ backstories. But really, the story is more of a bloody series of Rube Goldberg machines, each activating in turn, then pausing every now and then to tip over another inanimate object. Inevitably, it’ll bite someone in the ass — usually Ladybug.
Perhaps the worst thing that could be said about Bullet Train is that it tries too hard to be the hit action film of the summer, non-superhero division. Maybe fewer, funnier jokes would have done it a lot of good. Maybe a greater focus on its Japanese characters would have made for a richer film that’s less distracted by star power — Bullet Train bafflingly relegates heavy hitters like Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Karen Fukuhara to side or background roles, seemingly just to remind viewers the film is set in Japan. Perhaps it would be a better film if Leitch didn’t borrow so many stylistic tics from Guy Ritchie films and just let his own proficiency shine, so people could better appreciate this movie for the incredibly capable action-comedy it is. It feels a lot like a version of The Raid, with Daffy Duck cast in the lead role.