Director David Leitch knows his way around a contemporary action scene. Having been a producer and an uncredited director on John Wick, he took on “Deadpool 2” and the “Fast and Furious Spinoff Hobbs and Shaw”. In other words, Leitch has become adept at making action films that are short on credulity but long on humor and style, and this is one of them. “Bullet Train”, to use the obvious metaphor, is a fast moving vehicle that has few stops, no real scenery and a self contained environment for the players to bounce around in.
Brad Pitt plays an operative who has gone through some kind of existential crisis and is trying to maintain his career as a top clandestine agent, without having to kill or confront anyone in a violent manner. Of course when your job is to steal valuable assets from dangerous people, your life goals may have to take a backseat to your survival skills. In this situation Pitt’s character, code named “Ladybug”, has to steal a briefcase containing a large amount of money. Of course there is a reason for the money to be there, and there are others on the train who are after the same thing for different reasons, and there are other “fixers” from crime syndicates all trying to eliminate one another. If you took the characters from “Clue” and you moved them from a locked house mystery, to a trapped on a train crime thriller, this would be the result. This is one of those films that plays dismemberment for laughs and violence as a mere inconvenience until the next quip or visual joke comes along.
“Ladybug” is a Buster Keaton like character who manages to get into and out of situations with a combination of great skills and incredible luck. The physical jokes are over the top and completely unbelievable, they are also incredibly fun to watch and they are accompanied by the relaxed performance of Brad Pitt. It is as if Pitt is not only channeling the laid back character he played in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but he is now calling on the spirit of Owen Wilson to add a zen like daze to his hipster cool. Pitt seems to know how silly it all is but is having a good time anyway. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, in addition to using three names, play salt and pepper brothers who are contract killers/operatives for hire, who having thought they completed their mission, now have to deliver the briefcase that is the target of Ladybug. They too have cute code names, Tangerine and Lemon, and they are full of some of the same cool headed hipster violence and humor that dominate these types of movies.
If you saw “The Lost City” earlier this year, you probably won’t be too surprised at a couple of cameo spots that show up in the movie. Also, if you liked Pitt’s role in Deadpool 2, we get a turnabout moment that lasts just as long in this film. Maybe this is a little close to spoiler territory, but none of it gives away plot and you know how these things go anyway, so it is really more a moment of pleasure more than surprise when these things happen. I was also a bit pleased when I finally recognized the big bad who shows up at the climax of the film, it was not a role I had any foreknowledge of and it was another moment of cinema fan service more than plot development. Speaking of plot, unlike “Atomic Blonde” which still does not make any sense, this convoluted series of set ups works pretty well at bringing everything together in a reasonably coherent way. There may still be plot holes, but you will understand why everyone is in the picture and what their motives ultimately turn out to be. Pay no attention to the other passengers who appear and then vanish from the train. At best they provide a quick joke, most of the time they would be in the way, but by the end no one cares because the action and the train have accelerated way past reality a third of the way into the movie. By the last act we are watching a live action Road Runner cartoon, and that will be fine for most of us.
“Bullet Train” is the kind of summer movie you should be looking for right about now. It has no long term agenda, there is nothing serious going on that will haunt your memories, and it is easy to watch. Any film that has a Bee Gees tune and mimics the opening of “Saturday Night Fever” must have something going for it. Layer a Jim Steinman song on top of that with a bunch of other upbeat tunes and you will find yourself refreshingly immersed in a pop culture mashup, perfect for these times and this time of year. Jump the turnstile or buy a ticket, “Bullet Train” will entertain you for the dog days of summer.