“Bullet Train” Review

Murderers on the Shinkansen Express



Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder, battling aboard the bullet train. Movie stills taken from the film’s official website.

James Daly

Where does fate take you? For some, it can lead to something good, like getting a new job opportunity or perhaps even winning the lottery. For others, it can lead straight onto a Shinkansen “bullet train,” battling it out with other killers just as confused as you are as to how this happened. Was it truly fate that lead them there? Luck? Karma? Or something else entirely?

Perhaps no one is unfortunate enough to purchase a ticket aboard that bad situation, but if one instead purchased a ticket aboard Columbia Pictures’ recent action-comedy romp “Bullet Train,” they’d surely find themselves in for a fun and thrilling ride.

David Leitch, whose stylish action is seen on films from the first “John Wick” to last year’s “Nobody,” returns to the director’s chair for this. The film is an adaptation of a Japanese novel, localized in English under the same name, which Leitch brings to the screen alongside his penchant for high octane action.

The plot of the film revolves around an ensemble cast of characters, most never given a proper name but all of various shady backgrounds, each taking the titular train southbound for Kyoto. There’s Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a mercenary with frequent bouts of bad luck (hence the ironic nickname). He boards the train for a simple task that another mercenary called sick on—to grab a specific briefcase and leave. Unbeknownst to him, the train has other unsavory passengers aboard like the assassin duo “The Twins,” comprised of remarkably unidentical British brothers Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Their task aboard the train is to return the kidnapped son of an infamous yakuza boss and his ransom money back to him. Others have far different purposes such as yakuza grunt Yuichi (Andrew Koji), introduced as “The Father,” who boards the train to confront the one who attempted to kill his son, and a host of other unique and likely murderous individuals.

Brian Tyree Henry (Left) and Aaron Taylor Johnson (Right) as Lemon and Tangerine respectively.

It’s difficult to get into the plot from there without spoiling it, but suffice to say, the characters don’t get along, and their reasons don’t either, and soon enough there’s fists and bullets flying over the rails. What kind of fate awaits them at the end of the line? Well, you’ve got to watch to find out.

It’s a solid plot, essentially being a comedy (or perhaps massacre) of errors as each party talks or fights with the other, created with running motifs of luck and destiny. It can get messy at times, as the jumble of subplots and quick pace at which the film rolls—even with its running time of two hours—can be hard to keep track of. Some characters or plot elements seem to be cut short or drifted away, and those with a more critical or nitpicky eye may remark that some plot elements stretch the themes of luck too far.

The movie easily runs past these issues by its themes and characters, however. Many of the characters have their own quirks, from Ladybug’s tips on self-help and frustration with other characters, to Lemon’s obsession with Thomas the Tank Engine and belief that everyone can be described by one of the franchise’s characters, which their respective actors deliver greatly, without delving into being downright cartoonish. The aforementioned comedy of errors aspect plays in well with these, as Ladybug’s attempts to finish a simple job are constantly defeated by either run-ins with other assassins or issues as simple as losing his ticket when he first boards the train.

This is not to speak of the action, which David Leitch delivers great on as usual. Punches, kicks, stabs and shots are delivered in highly choreographed movements between the actors with quick cuts that makes them feel stylish yet still heavy. Although the location within a train’s cabins feels cramped after some time, Leitch keeps the action fresh with each scene and uses the environment to deliver some fantastic scenes. One such scene sees Ladybug and Lemon sock each other while remaining seated and as quiet as possible inside the silent train car, struggling and even choking each other while trying not to stir up anyone else in the car. It’s fantastic, and in some ways refreshing compared in the face of other action movies this year with explosive scenes of CG fighting that can level towns, while this film doesn’t reach anywhere near those wild extremes for its climax.

Brad Pitt (Left) and Bad Bunny (Right) fighting one another as Ladybug and The Wolf.

All of this is provided with slick graphics and cinematography. Flashy presentation is given to the introduction of each major personality on board as “Scott Pilgrim”-esque text in neon pops up of their names in both English and Japanese. Pop tunes crop up such as a Japanese cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” at the start of the movie, while, later on, an easy-listening cover of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” plays gleefully over a flashback where Lemon and Tangerine count their kills from their prior jobs. Each of the featured cars has distinctive lighting to discern where someone is located on the train—cooler lighting in the silent and commercial cars, warmer in the luxury and bar cars—and more light pools in over time as the train’s trip to Kyoto goes from night to day, giving a profound sense of how much time has moved over the film’s runtime. It’s clever and entertaining, as the whole film is.

“Bullet Train” may not be worthy of any awards from Cannes, but it is an undeniably entertaining film, with a genuinely decent story to boot. Though it may trip up in places on its way to the end, it pulls into station with grace, whether by luck or destiny or plain great work by those who made it. Whatever way you hop aboard, you’re likely to come out smiling.