Review of “Bullet Train”: Brad Pitt Takes the Lead in This Gleefully Crammed, High-Speed Battle Royale

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A half-dozen assassins shoot, stab, and otherwise perforate each other’s cute little faces in pursuit of a briefcase full of cash. This action movie can be pulled off on the two-hour-and-15-minute bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. David Leitch, the director of “Atomic Blonde,” choreographed and directed a high-stakes game of hot potato in which a self-deprecating Brat Pitt dons a bucket hat and oversized glasses, while Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson portray quarrelling “twin” hit men. Joey King (referred to as the Prince here), a crafty killer who appeared in Lemon, Tangerine, and “The Princess,” crashed weddings.

These oddball characters are identified by huge on-screen labels superimposed over their flash-frozen mugs, similar to how Martin Scorsese or Guy Ritchie like to introduce their ensembles. These other lethal so-and-sos include the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and the Wolf (Benito A Martnez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny). A “Kill Bill”-like a mashup of martial arts, manga, and gabby hit-man-movie elements, “Bullet Train” has the same vibe as “Snatch” and wears its mainstream style on its sleeve without the vision or wit it implies.

Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz made each of these characters twice as odd as necessary when adapting the pulp Kotaro Isaka’s novel “MariaBeetle” for a predominantly Western ensemble, lest spectators’ interest waiver for a moment.

Pitt’s new nonviolent tough guy (as recently seen in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” movies) is being guided by Maria (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who is a bug in his ear, through what is meant to be the easiest task of his career: In Tokyo, get on the bullet train, take the MacGuffin, and get off at the next station. The choo-choo goes cha-ching. However, Ladybug (Pitt’s alter ego) is incredibly unlucky, and it seems like there are more murders here than Agatha Christie could fit on the Orient Express.

In the meanwhile, innocent witnesses are scarce. After a few stops, nearly the only passengers who remain aboard are those who would kill for that briefcase. There’s a busybody woman who keeps shushing Ladybug and Lemon when their fistfighting gets too raucous.

There is also a boomslang snake that is extremely toxic and whose venom causes victims to bleed from their eyes within 30 seconds, like poor Logan Lerman (the first character to bite it, serving out the remainder of the movie in floppy-corpsed “Weekend at Bernie’s” mode).

Pitt’s character, who gains possession of the bulletproof Tumi quite easily early on, is continually faced with lethal barriers in the film as part of its design. Even when the movie goes off the tracks in the final act, Ladybug is remarkably adept at improvising his way out of sticky situations. Leitch didn’t come up with the concept to stage all this mayhem aboard a train, but he makes the most of that constraint by establishing aesthetically appealing set-pieces in various cars.

In the bar area, Ladybug and the Wolf engage in a knife duel. He and Tangerine later wreck the kitchen. The mascot for a nearby children’s performance, who keeps getting smacked in the face, gets into some amusing situations in a neon-lit section of the train. The restrooms themselves are fair game.

Given how many other inventive filmmakers are attempting to stand out in the genre, the fight scenes feel quite distinctive, which is impressive in and of itself. Leitch frequently approaches these confrontations similarly to how Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire formerly approached their dance routines: Given how terrible slaughter can be, it can be difficult to not take the violence literally; instead, their choreography and ability to shock should be admired. Leitch takes human life with a callous disregard that still bothers me. “Bullet Train” represents one of the first and most ambitious pandemic-made blockbusters to be released, showing that Leitch and company felt confident enough in the return to normalcy of the world that they could have the Prince push a 6-year-old off a roof to entice the father of the child (Andrew Koji, by far the weakest link in the picture) onto the train. King’s character, who sports a pink schoolgirl outfit and a black bob, is a complete mess. She is a cruel manipulator who frequently presents as a helpless victim to trap her prey.

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