What can I say about Bullet Train? Well, Hiroyuki Sanada is in it as a sage old warrior. Despite being based on a novel by Japanese author K?tar? Isaka (MariaBeetle, which won the University Reader Award in 2010 and was translated to English by Sam Malissa in 2021 under the name Bullet Train), Sanada’s presence feels like an analogy for the film’s relationship with Japanese culture. Sanada was the samurai that bullied and trained Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. He’s Scorpion in the most recent Mortal Kombat. He’s the Yakuza that Hawkeye kills in his global quest for justice (read: murdering non-white criminals) in Avengers: Endgame. He’s opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine. Where on that iffy continuum of American films engaging with Japanese culture does Bullet Train fall? It’s a surprisingly complex question when asked of a film that is at times too clever, but lacks depth or innovation, unlike a real bullet train. A lack of innovation in and of itself isn’t a failure if the execution is spectacular, but Bullet Train uses a familiar tale of murderers clashing along intersecting storylines centered on a couple of objects to demonstrate another familiar tale: Plenty of flash and too little substance.
The film is oriented around Ladybug’s (Brad Pitt) first job back as a hitman after some therapy. While attempting to retrieve a briefcase on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto, he runs into several other assassins on missions that pit them all against each other. This leads to punches, shootings, stabbings and general confusion around humorous but deadly violence.
The first films that came to mind watching Bullet Train were Lucky Number Slevin and Way of the Gun, movies about killers meeting violently at cross purposes. But it’s not as self-serious or self-important as either. And it’ll probably age better because it isn’t homophobic or violently misogynistic, though a lot of its jokes are very much of 2022. So, it’s closer to a time-capsule than being timeless.
Bullet Train is not as visually experimental as Kill Bill, but that might be a closer analogy—it’s all assassins with codenames and gimmicks against a colorful, shifting backdrop. It also reminds me of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, albeit less obnoxious. And in lieu of a kaiju starfish, we have the central vehicle running off track, with effects done creatively and realistically enough to almost pass for a real stunt, or at least substitute for one in a way that conveyed risk and danger.
Good actors elevate okay dialogue in a decent script; it’s knowing enough to grate on some people but mostly left me wanting for edge. Still, while movies with too many quips lead to the characters sounding like they have the same voice, the shticks here keep the characters distinct beyond race and nationality—which still figure into the film, but not in ways that are pandering on one hand or particularly interesting on the other. Despite the betrayal which comes from an oversaturation of advertising, the performances land. Brad Pitt’s Ladybug, the hitman out of retirement pursuing inner peace, comes off as annoying in his attempts to be wise, but is written as dumb enough to not be overwhelmingly arrogant. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Lemon and Tangerine have good chemistry; Benito A. Martinez Ocasio (AKA Bad Bunny) has a nice flourish in his brief appearance as Wolf (like Zazie Beetz’s Hornet, I wish he were in the film longer). Joey King is called Prince here and is a dynamic catalyst—she makes things happen through a good expression of a somewhat obvious disguise. And Michael Shannon plays White Death, the big bad, a Russian who took over a Yakuza family by killing the Minegishi family…the Yakuza family in the novel.
His appearance informs the global nature of the cast of assassins within the plot’s context, therefore enabling the diversified cast. I generally encourage that sort of thing, but it’s noteworthy that in this case it’s taking a Japanese story and making it less Japanese. That‘s a missed opportunity for the American filmmakers and audience. Take movies like Neptune Frost or Karmalink. Despite Americans involved in the production, they tell you something about the places where they’re set; they’re configured around the material conditions and cultures they’re depicting. Even The Takedown, which feels a lot like an American action blockbuster, draws on specifics of French culture and politics from Paris to the provinces.
Bullet Train isn’t especially intentional with that sort of thing. The third act falls back on the familiar Yakuza revenge tale, which is more specific within the context of multiple Yakuza assassins crossing paths than as a backdrop for an American, two Londoners, a Mexican cartel hitman and some Russians. I had the impression that the metropolitan nature of the cast would lead to a deeper exploration of these other areas, but they just show up in the background.
Yet Bullet Train does contain a subplot about a Japanese man defending his family while seeking justice and vengeance against a foreign interloper. Granted, it isn’t so forward with nationalistic imagery as to be a parable about Japanese sovereignty or Japanese-U.S. cooperation. Though, if you wanted to squint, stretch and take interpretive license, you could venture that it’s about Japan and America working together to limit Russia’s influence.
Every movie doesn’t have to be a treatise on the domestic or foreign politics of its setting, but the setting always informs the story. This is why people are anxious about a remake of Parasite or The Raid and why the remakes of things like Oldboy were poorly received. You can’t just copy-paste an idea and expect it to translate without care. Sometimes it works out (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven are both great) but in the 21st century, misses seem more common than hits.
Bullet Train’s cultural specificity only goes as far as the antagonists being the Yakuza and Brad Pitt mentioning a few times that there’s a general air of politeness. They don’t even really commit to the fish-out-of-water bit. The Japanese covers of “Staying Alive” and “I Need a Hero” sound great, because of course they do, but the tone of the musical selection feels more like spaghetti Westerns. Cultural blindness notwithstanding, the exposition is delivered in flashbacks too early and too often, breaking up the flow of the film, prompting the question, “Why didn’t you just start with this information and then call back to it?” Granted, later it’s self-referential in a not-quite-way comedic way that feels like something from a Guy Ritchie picture. Your mileage may vary.
I’m leaning hard on comparisons throughout this review because Bullet Train just doesn’t feel very original. I admit there were things about the lighting, set dressing and costuming I found pleasing to the eye. I had a good time with Bullet Train. I didn’t hate Bullet Train. I just think that I’ll begin to forget Bullet Train, and in remembering that I’ve forgotten it, I will resent it because I’m an easy mark for crime films and an easy mark for action movies—including but not limited to cheeky R-rated action-comedies. So, I would be perfectly fine saying “I love this, but it might not be for you,” and I’m disappointed I can’t get there. Creative missteps brought a bunch of really talented people together to make an okay thing. Maybe I expected more from director David Leitch because Deadpool 2 and John Wick are two disparate types of standouts. Bullet Train doesn’t reach the vulgar heights of the former or the lean plot and exuberantly violent technique of the latter. The best martial arts scenes are in trailers and the most spectacular bloodbath happens in an early flashback. I keep coming back to the idea that something had to get lost in translation. Bullet Train will be a rewarding ride for some, but I’m not sure they should have let it leave the station.
Director: David Leitch
Writer: Zak Olkewicz
Starring: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada
Release Date: August 5, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.