Bullet Train is a laugh-a-minute action romp, packed with fun characters, electric fight choreography, and (on occasion) surprisingly earnest emotion. It’s what happens when you cram a dozen of Hollywood’s most charming performers into a tight space and arm them with the co-director of John Wick, a biting script, quirky roles, and an array of random objects that double as impromptu weapons. While the movie never debuts a particularly profound message, despite spending significant time ruminating on the nature of luck, fate, and self-determinism, Bullet Train delivers where it counts most – as a stylish and blood-soaked parade of clever sets-up and crowd-pleasing payoffs.
At the center of Bullet Train, Ladybug (Brad Pitt) returns to work as a snatch-and-grab criminal-for-hire – after a lengthy sabbatical of soul-searching and anger management interventions. Filling in for a coworker, who was struck sick with a stomach bug, Ladybug is charged with boarding one of Japan’s high-speed transport trains to steal a briefcase. Simple enough – until Ladybug discovers he’s not the only contracted asset onboard. As the train barrels toward Kyoto, Ladybug stumbles into one altercation after another in an effort to escape and/or learn who picked him, and a cavalcade of underworld lowlifes, to board the same train – and for what purpose.
Bullet Train was directed by David Leitch and is based on the 2010 novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka. Known for helming several of the last decade’s most outrageous action films, including John Wick, Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde, as well as Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Leitch is at home with Bullet Train‘s principle selling points — most notably the memorable action and snappy dialogue. In many respects, the experience is style-over-substance at every turn but, to its credit, Bullet Train is so stylish, that it’s easy to ignore that any words coming out of Leitch’s characters are designed to sound cool, even when feigning substantive, rather than bothering to reveal something truly penetrating.
It’s a clear choice, albeit one that creates a pretty stark contrast, given how much time Bullet Train‘s characters spend talking about how they understanding their lives and choices. As an example, while Ladybug repeatedly ruminates on his efforts at self-betterment, toward the end of the film he’s still operating out of a relatively inane understanding of fate (and luck); yet, that doesn’t really matter to Leitch because the character has endured a non-stop barrage of over-the-top fights, inter-assassin banter, and hilarious misfortunes. Similarly, Brian Tyree Henry’s character, Lemon, has a recurring bit where he psychoanalyzes people based on which Thomas the Tank Engine character they’re most like, positing the kid’s show was filled with life lessons that informed his worldview. The bit has worthy payoff, but Leitch never slows down to unpack what wisdom the audience (or really anyone outside Lemon) might find in the animated show. For that reason, the gag is another example of clever setup – framed as insightful reflection – without contributing an answer to Bullet Train‘s various philosophical pontifications.
Fortunately, the film’s central mysteries, and the subsequent twists that unspool, overshadow missed chances for the characters to divulge meaningful perspectives. Bullet Train also provides a never-ending carousel of unforgettable miscreants and shocking violence to enjoy – with the only downside being that the sheer size of this all-star cast, at times, results in shockingly brief appearances. Several characters, played by fan-favorite actors, are dispatched as quickly as they are introduced – each one going out in a zany hail of blood and glory. In addition to Pitt, who relishes in Ladybug’s asinine shenanigans, Henry’s Lemon as well as his partner, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), get the most screen time and are highlights – both when paired and as the two are forced down separate arcs. Beyond contributing several of Bullet Train‘s most dazzling fight sequences, the pair also inform the movie’s most effective attempt at emotional (rather than stylistic) payoff.
Similarly, Joey King serves-up an engaging turn as The Prince. Chewing scenery and both recontextualizing as well as playing against “girl next door” roles that many fans will remember her in (despite the presence of several darker turns King has delivered across her filmography). Thanks to King, The Prince threads a very fine line, producing a character that is fully-realized and credible, rather than a hollow vessel through which Bullet Train might force drama and tension between unlikely parties.
Bullet Train is bursting with other scene-stealing appearances from well-known actors, including Bad Bunny (playing The Wolf), Andrew Koji (playing Kimura), Michael Shannon (playing The White Death), and Hiroyuki Sanada (playing The Elder), along with a number of perfectly-timed cameos that are sure to get a laugh out of viewers. Still, despite a diverse cast, the film has been criticized for whitewashing a number of key roles from Kōtarō Isaka’s novel. In the context of the movie’s world, there is a noticeably strange proportion of non-Asian background characters on the train from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s not a dealbreaker for minute-to-minute enjoyment of Leitch’s story, but it’s certainly a missed opportunity to populate Bullet Train’s lead cast with Asian actors in a movie based on a Japanese novel that’s still set in Japan.
For moviegoers who are interested in premium formats, Bullet Train is also playing on IMAX screens. That said, an upgraded ticket is not essential for Leitch’s latest movie. The film is stuffed with eye-popping choreography and several set pieces will benefit from a high-quality visual and sound setup, especially Bullet Train‘s outrageous and visually-stunning climax; nevertheless, the movie is still set inside a train for 95% of its runtime and there’s only so much that performance formats can enhance.
Ultimately, Bullet Train is one of the most entertaining and flashy films of 2022, thanks to lively performances, incredible fight setups, stylish cinematography, and punchy writing. The message isn’t as profound as its characters might hope, but Leitch prioritizes what he does best and there’s no question moviegoers expecting a wild and funny thrill ride will leave very satisfied.
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Bullet Train releases in theaters on August 5. The film is 126 minutes long and is rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality.