Director: David Leitch (USA, Japan). Year of Release: 2022
A hospital room where a young boy is lying in bed, with all sorts of tubes coming out of his various orifices. He’s been pushed off a roof. The boy’s father stands at his bedside, and is consoled by his own father, who offers some words of conciliation. Cut to: a pair of sneakers walking down a road, while the soundtrack plays a Japanese cover version of the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive.
Haven’t I seen this familiar song sung in a foreign language gag in countless other films? Well, Bullet Train “borrows” much of its humour from older films. There are two people who don’t look like each other (one is white and one is black), but everyone thinks are twins, because that was funny in Twins 1988. There’s a snake let loose in confined transport because that was funny in Snakes on a Plane (2006) and much less funny in the “hommage” Snakes on a Train (also 2006).
And there are Guy Ritchie-type cockney gangsters, because that was funny when… no, guy Ritchie-type cockney gangsters were never funny, were they? Which leads us with a bit of a problem. Bullet Train is an “action comedy” which is a pale imitation of earlier “action comedies”, many of which were already painfully unfunny.
Bullet Train “borrows” most unashamedly from early Quentin Tarantino films.… There are the endless flashbacks, the hitmen talking to each other using pop culture references, not least the tedious running joke about learning life lessons from Thomas the Tank Engine. There’s even a massacre at a wedding party, where samurai swords are pit against machine guns. This reproduction of Kill Bill isn’t just copying an idea, it’s daylight robbery.
Back to the plot, such as It is. Brad Pitt is a hired assassin called Ladybug. Almost all of the characters In the film have cute nicknames like this because, well, that’s what happens in films like this. Ladybug is starting to question whether he’s really in the right sort of business. He is getting advice from a therapist and fond of quoting Zen Buddhist psychobabble. But – and you’ll never expect this – his handler convinces him to do just one last job.
It’s nothing hard, just a simple “snatch and grab”. All he has to do is board a Bullet Train, find a suitcase which he can identify by a sticker on the handle, and take It off the train with him. As he moans to his handler (they’re permanently attached by a telephone line) that there’s no way he’s going to find the suitcase on the 16-carriage train, there it is right in front of him.
The problem is that the train is filled with other assassins, each one speaking with an exaggerated accent. There’s a couple of cockneys, a Mexican, at least one Rooshian, and a posh public school girl. It reminds me of watching local amateur dramatics where you’d see a Dario Fo play where everyone used a different regional accent, because that was the only one they could do. Isn’t that what acting’s all about?
The plot sometimes defies the laws of physic and often basic logic. So, this guy bough all the tickets on the Bullet Train so that the only passengers would be a group of assassins fighting each other? But only for the last few stops, as some of the early scenes depend on the reactions of other passengers? And where have all the ticket collectors and catering staff gone? Come to think of it, who is actually driving the train?
I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. Everyone said that Bullet Train was shit. Everyone said, don’t be fooled by the slick trailer. It contains literally every halfway decent scene in the film. Everyone said stay away. To be honest, everyone was exaggerating, but not by much. Bullet Train does contain the occasionally funny scene. Of course it’s bloated, it’s overlong, it’s bad, but it’s not House of Gucci or Spencer bad. It’s not terrible.
It’s not that the film lacks ideas, it just doesn’t know what to do with them. Ladybug spends some time ignoring the ticket collector (for reasons of Plot, he doesn’t have a ticket). He has an ongoing struggle to find inner peace. And there’s an awful lot of fighting. But the problem is, none of this actually leads anywhere. The ticket collector is there for a while, then he disappears. There’s no story arc and no-one has a character arc. In fact, no-one really has a discernible personality.
And for a film set in Japan, based on a Japanese book with Japanese characters, Bullet Train is a very white film. This can be explained to an extent by the need to get in the stars to win Hollywood backing, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth. When the few Japanese characters do arrive, they’re samurai fighters or Triad gangsters – Japanese people as white US-Americans would like to think they are. It’s not a good look.
One line sums up the film perfectly. At one stage, stretching to find a metaphor, Ladybug says “He follows me around like … something witty.” Bullet Train knows it should be funnier than it is. It is stealing from other films, some of which are genuinely funny (we can talk about Guy Ritchie later). Most of the time, it knows what it should be doing. It’s just unable to carry it off.