“Bullet Train” – Come on ride the train.
As I struggled to come up with a theme for my review of Bullet Train, I skimmed through other, early reviews for ideas. To my surprise, Bullet Train has divided other critics almost right down the middle (currently sitting at 53% positive on Rotten Tomatoes; 49 on Metacritic). Beyond that, I also discovered Bullet Train brought Quentin Tarantino to the minds of a significant portion of critics, including a friend of mine that attended the same screening as I did. While I can see why they had that immediate thought, comparing Bullet Train to any Tarantino flick is to completely misunderstand Tarantino movies.
In case you haven’t noticed, I have never written a full review of a Tarantino film. Yeah, that surprised me a little as well, because I’ve seen all four movies he’s directed in the fourteen years I’ve been writing reviews. In fact, the only thing I’ve said about any of his movies during that time is including Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood in my 2019 Year in Review, saying “It’s Tarantino jerking off to himself in a mirror for two hours, then remembering he wanted to show an alt-history version of some Manson-cult murders.” Can you guess how I feel about Tarantino films?
Based on the reviews of Bullet Train, the parallel to Tarantino seems to be that Bullet Train contains a bunch of stylized violence surrounded by witty and glib banter. Fair enough, but that’s where the parallel stops. Hell, that describes every Marvel movie and nobody is confusing MCU films with Tarantino. And let’s not pretend that Tarantino invented banter or stylized violence. All he did was take 1970s kung-fu movies to the next level and wrap it in lessons learned from Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau flicks (to name just two legends of banter) or all 80s action flicks.
The main reasons I dislike Tarantino movies are that Tarantino seems to become bored with his own movies, as evidenced by the ends typically exploding in bloodbaths for no good reason (ex. Django Unchained), and his movies taking themselves way too seriously. Bullet Train makes neither of those mistakes. Its climactic bloodbath follows an entire film of bloodbaths and it is very much aware of itself as a non-serious action flick. If there is any director that Bullet Train should remind people of, it’s Matthew Vaughn (the Kingsman franchise).
Have I said too much about Tarantino, who has literally nothing to do with Bullet Train? Yep, and I apologize. It just annoys me to see Tarantino, one of the most overrated directors in the history of film, invoked as the reason to crap on Bullet Train, a film that does banter and stylized violence better than almost every Tarantino film. Here’s a head-scratching quote from Ann Hornaday (Washington Post), epitomizing such:
As if we needed more proof of the Tarantinization of contemporary cinema, “Bullet Train” barrels into theaters to remind us. A generation ago, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” – followed by the even more popular “Pulp Fiction” – electrified audiences and the film industry alike, sending a jolt of visual energy and compulsive verbiage through an action genre that had gone moribund. Ever since, we’ve been awash in imitators who have sought to master QT’s branded elixir of sadistic violence punctuated by expository flashbacks, deep-cut needle drops and grandiloquent pronouncements on pop-culture arcana.
Has it gotten old yet?
Hornaday inexplicably continues:
If you’re craving one more variation on the well-worn theme of promiscuous bloodlettings accompanied by glib verbal filler, Leitch has served up a presentable slab of grist for an increasingly creaky mill.
Yes, Ann, I am craving it. Just like every moviegoer who enjoys glib action flicks. The reality is that Bullet Train is not just an entertaining romp of a popcorn flick, but a well-written romp featuring a cast of memorable characters portrayed by actors clearly having a blast in their respective roles. As much as the marketing would have you believe Brad Pitt is the star of this film, the entire cast makes you think the marketers didn’t actually watch the film. A cast featuring exquisite performances from Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Joey King, with great support from Sandra Bullock, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Andrew Koji, Zazie Beets, and Bad Bunny (as well as a couple of perfect cameos).
Pitt plays Ladybug, an assassin who believes bad luck follows him around. Not for him though, but for everyone around him. Even cars. Ladybug is tasked by his handler, Maria Beetle (Bullock), to snatch a briefcase from a bullet train heading to Kyoto. Unbeknownst to Ladybug, he is sharing the train with several other assassins who also have an interest in the briefcase, assassins who all have connections to each other. These connections are revealed to us through a series of flashbacks, which also double as character development, as well as revelations in real time. All of this plays out in the eight cars of the train, woven through a series of fight sequences and the banter we crave so much. The tightness with which everything is woven is a testament to director David Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (adapted from the novel Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka).
All things on the train eventually lead to the reveal of the owner of the briefcase, crime kingpin White Death. Is White Death on the train? Is White Death waiting for them at Kyoto? Is White Death actually Maria Beetle? Are you White Death? You’re going to have to watch the film to find out. And you should watch the film. Not only is the mystery revealed, but all of the loose ends and side stories are tied up in a beautiful, if not blood-drenched, bow. If that doesn’t get you excited for a film, then you probably liked The Hateful Eight way too much.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back – it’s worth the ride.