When a movie advertises relentlessly, I usually have my reservations. Brad Pitt in a not-so-serious assassin flick should have been more than enough of a sales pitch. I didn’t need the trailer crammed down my throat at every other movie I went to for six months. I guess it worked though because, despite my hesitation, I still went and saw it on opening weekend and enjoyed it more than I expected. Bullet Train delivers on its promise of stylish action-comedy but it moves surprisingly slow and has some difficulty focusing with so many moving parts.
An assassin who’s in the middle of an existential mid-life crisis finds himself in the middle of what was supposed to be a snatch-and-grab job, but that goes terribly awry and now he’s stuck on a speeding train with a bunch of other assassins who were all suspiciously put in the same place at the same time.
David Leitch has helmed numerous big-budget, successful action comedies in the past so putting him in the director’s chair for this was a no-brainer especially when pairing him with Zak Olkewicz, who only has a few writing credits, to adapt Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 translated novel. This script has a firm grasp on what it wants to be and weaves its elements together with an effective style. While the big-and-bold approach was a good choice, especially when it came to selling the spectacle of the film, sometimes less is more.
Despite being the most bankable, most established, biggest star in the film, the movie could have probably been better without Brad Pitt in the lead role. Now, this may seem counter-intuitive but hear me out. His name was likely one of the big reasons the film got funded in the first place, but his character is nowhere close to the most interesting and there’s a lot of time dedicated to him despite that. Before I get crucified, I am not saying that Pitt is a bad actor or anything like that. Quite the contrary, in fact. A few nights prior to seeing this, I had gone back and watched 12 Monkeys because I love that movie and he is a big part of the reason why. He’s incredible in that film but, seeing the disparity in the performances, Bullet Train felt like a completely mailed-in and uninspired performance in comparison. Pitt still has plenty of charisma as a leading man, but the character he was given here relied almost entirely on his star power rather than giving him something interesting to work with.
With that in mind, Aaron Taylor-Johnson totally steals this film. He and Brian Tyree Henry are fantastic together and that pairing should have been the focal point of the film. When the story is in their hands, the whole film has a strong Guy Ritchie vibe and the character dynamic between them is more meaningful than anything we get out of the film’s lead. Fortunately, I think both Leitch and Olkewicz recognized this because we get a good deal of screen time from them but there still isn’t enough to go around.
My primary reason for seeing this film was the sort of secretive role played by Michael Shannon. It’s an interesting character for sure, but he’s barely in the movie enough to truly get to the heart of it. I’m sure he was compensated well and had a good time, but he’s way too good of an actor to be tucked away. The same could be said of Hiroyuki Sanada who plays a role that’s in tandem with Shannon. Their shared history is important to the context of the story but isn’t given the proper focus either as the goal of the movie seemed more intent on making fashionable entertainment than telling the strongest elements of its story.
Joey King was quite good in her role and is positioned well by Leitch and Olkewicz. Sadly, Andrew Koji, who is the first character we meet, gets relegated to something of a dog on a leash after her introduction. Zazie Beetz is great but she felt kind of shoe-horned in here as well when she could have been a better-utilized asset for the filmmakers. I guess Bad Bunny really needed to get that placement.
The movie was still enjoyable but the general focal issues led to pacing problems. Clocking in at just over two hours, this movie felt much longer and that’s not a good thing…especially for a movie called Bullet Train. I understand they are trying to build towards this big reveal, but Pitt’s character at the center of things made it a bit of a slog at times. It often seemed as if the camera and storytelling were so enraptured by his presence that they lapsed into sheer adoration.
Jonathan Sela’s cinematography is very strong and the production design by David Scheunemann is one of the strongest elements of the film. You can easily see how much care and attention to detail went into the presentation but, with all this movie has going for it, the movie as a whole left a lot of meat on the bone. Had I been very excited about this release, I would have been disappointed. However, it was still entertaining enough as a Saturday afternoon matinee.
Recommendation: If you are a fan of Guy Ritchie films, it feels like that is what this one wanted to be. It certainly looks good on screen and has a high production value that is maxed out by a big screen experience. However, if you wanted to wait for this one to be available to watch on your couch it may not be that much of a downgrade.
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