Five assassins aboard a fast moving bullet train find out their missions have something in common.
It’s hard not to get won over by Brad Pitt. Self-effacing, charming and talented, he’s parlayed these qualities into a career that’s more diverse than many realize and has lasted longer than most predicted. His ease on camera is perhaps his greatest talent. All he has to do is flash a smile and deliver a witty quip in his trademark relaxed manner and viewers are willing to take whatever cinematic ride he has to offer.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in his latest, David Leitch’s “Bullet Train,” is that he’s miscast. The veteran actor does something I’ve never seen him do before – he tries too hard. Effortless and at ease in so many other films, here there’s a sense of discomfort about Mr. Pitt as he flounders about searching for the proper tone amidst the blood-soaked mayhem that engulfs his character, an assassin with the codename “Ladybug.” It’s odd watching an actor of this stature struggle – forcing a joke, overplaying an emotion -all on display in this bloated actioner that revels in its ridiculous plot and over-the-top violence.
The story is simplicity itself – there are five assassins on the titular conveyance, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, each hoping to get their hands on a briefcase containing $10 million. However, the screenplay by Zak Olkewicz, an adaptation of the novel by Kotaro Isaka, goes out of its way to provide elaborate backstories for each of the killers, all of them intersecting in a way that comes off as a desperate and convenient rather than clever.
This is the first job Ladybug has had in a while, returning to the game after taking time off to dive deep into therapy in order to find some purpose in his life. Meanwhile, killers Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are on board to shepherd the case and the wayward son of their employer back to safety, while Prince (Joey King) has her own reasons for going for a ride while drawing Kimura (Andrew Koji) and his father The Elder (Hiroyuki Sananda) on the train. Throw in the poisoner Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and the knife-wielding Wolf (Bad Bunny) and you’ve got quite the motely crew creating mayhem at the drop of a hat.
As for the violence, Leitch leans towards the aesthetic he employed in “Deadpool 2,” rather than “Hobbs and Shaw,” namely a highly stylized approach that relies on blood-splattering, evisceration and decapitations. The filmmaker uses an over-the-top manner that is supposed to be comic. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. (Obviously, your mileage will vary…) The fact that so little is left to imagination proves tedious however, the choreography of the many fight scenes is impressive.
The cast is in on the joke and all lean into the preposterous nature of the story with performances that mirror its outlandish sensibility. That is, everyone but Pitt, who oddly stands out like a sore thumb. While I’ve criticized Ryan Reynolds in the past for repeating the same schtick with little variation in numerous films, this part is more in his wheelhouse than Pitt’s. His wise-acre approach would have worked well as would his overearnest delivery of the self-help maxims Ladybug uses to keep himself focused and serene. In Pitt’s hands, lines like “Put peace out in the world, you get peace back,” fall flat. Were Reynolds to say it…well, you can just hear him overselling the notion to great effect.
In the end, “Bullet Train” is the sort of movie that sometimes works but just as often doesn’t. It overstays its welcome, but it does have some interesting plot twists. Its gratuitous violence becomes repetitious but the sword work during the climax is impressive. Pitt struggles but Taylor-Johnson is a delight to watch. You get it – it’s a blood-soaked one-step forward, two steps back exercise that uses a frantic visual approach in an attempt to distract us from how vacuous it really is.
2 1/2 Stars