Something to recognize about Japanese thrillers: Ridiculous comic elements are often baked in. It’s part of their sense of humor, and the zaniness can be quite invigorating. Think of Seijun Suzuki’s clownish interior design in Tokyo Drifter, Takashi Miike making a guy in a Kermit the Frog costume into an unstoppable killing machine in Yakuza Apocalypse, or Sion Sono turning Tokyo Tribe into a gangsta rap karate musical. Even non-Japanese directors have mimicked the style, as Quentin Tarantino did in the first part of Kill Bill and James Gunn did in The Suicide Squad. (The bit where Harley Quinn kills the soldiers and flowers spurt from their bodies instead of blood? That’s pure Sono.) David Leitch aims for this in Bullet Train, and he’s not really suited to the craziness, but occasionally the action and the actors in this overstuffed bento box of a movie bail him out.
Based on Kôtarô Isaka’s novel, the film takes place late one night on the shinkansen during the two hours or so that it takes to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto. Our protagonist is an American hitman codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt), who is legendary for his bad luck. Having taken some time off and seen a therapist, he has gone all New Agey and taken a vow of non-violence, and is in Japan merely to steal someone’s briefcase and hop off the train. Unfortunately, this only seems to worsen his luck, because the transport is chock full of other killers: two West Ham fans (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), a schoolgirl with a posh British accent (Joey King), a plush anime mascot (Zazie Beetz), a badass Mexican (Bad Bunny, here billed by his given name of Benito A. Martínez Ocasio), and a highly poisonous Australian snake stolen from the zoo. Most of the killers bear past grudges against Ladybug and are happy for the opportunity to off him while they’re doing their own assignments.
The film benefits greatly from the comic instincts of Pitt and Henry, the latter portraying a guy who treats the kids’ TV show Thomas the Tank Engine as the fount of all earthly wisdom. The fight sequence between them has an old American woman loudly shushing them as they try to kill each other, while the one between Pitt and Taylor-Johnson is interrupted by an attendant (Karen Fukuhara) who asks whether they want a beverage. Ladybug often survives by the dumbest of luck, like when the Mexican attacks him with a knife and impales his phone rather than his chest, punctuated by the hero’s disbelieving cry of, “You stabbed me?” Even funnier is when he gives an enemy the snake venom and watches them die gruesomely while he helplessly asks, “Do you want some water? Do you want me to hold your hand?”
Director David Leitch does superbly at staging the fight sequences, with one fight involving a syringe and the one with the Mexican using a bar inside the train. The problem is, he’s never had the knack for incorporating humor into his action movies. He tries to change things up with outdoor sequences that are blatantly filmed on sets and an anime sequence from a Japanese kids’ TV show, but even so, the joke wears thin over the movie’s 126-minute running time. The actors here — despite the presence of Sandra Bullock, Michael Shannon, and a couple of surprise cameos — don’t do quite enough to bring the comedy to critical mass. If they had, maybe Bullet Train would have been the thrill ride it was meant to be.
Starring Brad Pitt. Directed by David Leitch. Written by Zak Olkewicz, based on Kôtarô Isaka’s novel. Rated R.