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‘Bullet Train’ (review)

We have all been the guest at a friend’s party when another (sometimes tipsy) person has run up and demanded an outsized amount of attention for a fairly basic or uninteresting story. Politely, you try to find something to say that acknowledges what they were trying to do and moves the conversation along in the hopes of it improving.

This is what it feels like to find the homage to Tarantino instead of the cheap imitation in David Leitch’s unsatisfying adaptation of Kôtarô Isaka’s novel. Thankfully, a strong lead in Brad Pitt makes for a few bright spots in the haphazard film.

Bullet Train follows several assassins (Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bryan Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, Joey King, Bad Bunny) as they each complete a mission surrounding a briefcase, a crime lord, and a feud many years and run-ins in the making.

As the fast-moving train approaches its final stop, the assassins start to realize how closely tied together their missions truly are.

With an ensemble cast this large and well-stocked, it is hard to stand out.

Everyone is trying to hold their own but Brad Pitt carries the entire film with his charm and joy in reaching the stage of his career where he can just have fun. Affable and almost dorky in a bucket hat and black glasses, Pitt’s Ladybug is a quirky non-violent protagonist in a wildly bloody high-body count film. He and his handler are set apart from the deadly machinations of the many killers on the train, as Ladybug is just covering for another colleague (I will not spoil the cameo, but it fits well). It is almost unfortunate that Brad Pitt originally came onto the scene in Thelma & Louise custom-built to be a romantic lead, because he can be a joy goofing around as a character actor.

Or perhaps everyone is trying so hard that his natural talent seems more effortless here.

The rest of the cast varies only slightly in how well they used what little they were given to work with. But the lion’s share of sympathy goes more to Ladybug, which is amazing when one character is there to avenge his hospitalized son. There are just too many loose ends to both create and to tie up later, so no story gets a fair shake. It feels like there is a lead to watch for every train, but they come in and out so frequently it is impossible to build even a fleeting attachment. We have no stake in their deaths or successes. Instead, buy-in is limited to a passing need to move on with the convoluted story.

Zazie Beetz is wasted in an all too brief encounter, while a bit about Bryan Tyree Henry’s character and Thomas the Tank Engine is brought out too many times to stay funny. Flashbacks are too recent and brief to create meaning – usually it is just a way to add more blood and body counts. The pacing is entirely chaotic, but not in a good way.

The thought seems to be that if you have enough action and affable stars, you can still be fun when you are not good.

This is the draw of many schlocky action-filled summer films, which should be a last taste of idiocy before we are drowning in overly serious Oscar fodder.

But Bullet Train gets too clever with itself trying to be Knives Out and Pulp Fiction at the same time while failing to match the wit or relationship building central to the success of both.

Brad Pitt gives his all and it is almost enough with a strong cast, but unfortunately, those of us who need to buy into a story as much as a pretty well-known face will be left looking for the next stop.

 

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Kelly McCormick, David Leitch, Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay by Zak Olkewicz
Based on Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka
Directed by David Leitch
Starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry,
Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Benito A Martínez Ocasio,  Sandra Bullock

 

 

 

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