Bullet Train (2022): japes on a train | Review

By TheHaughtyCulturist | Published: 4 August 2022

Five assassins, countless quips and a whole bunch of bodies. Is Bullet Train the shot in the arm you didn’t know you needed?

What is Bullet Train about?

Hitman Ladybug (Brad Pitt) wants out of the killing game. As John Wick knows, the job doesn’t let go of its own.

When Ladybug boards the bullet train in Tokyo, he’s expecting a one-stop wonder: get on, grab the cash, get off. But with every assassin worthy of a slick nickname also on board, that’s not how it goes down.

The dying game

Bullet Train wears noughties’ swagger like a badge of honour. There’s Brad’s bucket hat for starters. There are also the ghosts of countless assassin stories that have made it to the big screen since.

Now, you’re probably going to love Bullet Train –  unless you don’t, in which case you’ll probably hate it. Where you fall on the scale depends on how you feel about a high-octane yet slapstick take on the movies that got here first. That includes the likes of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, as well as every franchise with a devastatingly efficient hitman or fast-talking gangsters.

If Bullet Train sounds like a nostalgia-laden mix tape – and it is, really – it brings its own brand of exuberance to the table.

True to the genre, it’s brash, cocky and very, very violent (and graphically so). But while relentless machismo and quick quips can get irritatingly smug, here it’s also beautifully choreographed and flawlessly timed.

Beyond the ballet of bloody carnage, it’s also unrelentingly light hearted. John Wick may have had the dog, but Bullet Train is the over-exuberant puppy.

In its quest to delight, the film is surprisingly funny too – and not just in a puerile or sniggering way. Sure the laughs can be jarring in a film that offs its characters so ruthlessly. Still, this is notably cartoonish and comic book violence.

The implications of that are a conversation for another day. In the meantime, what you see here is far more brutal than your average YouTube fail compilation … and yet far less disturbing.

Candy gangsters

As the film’s flashy meta labels prove, the characters are symbolic rather than substantial. The Wolf, the Hornet, the White Death. Even Ladybug’s pseudonym has implications for the plot’s inevitable fireworks.

However, each serves a function to the story, and can’t veer far from their given bundle of traits, tics and one-liners as a result. Ladybug’s therapy sound bites, for instance, or Lemon’s Thomas the Tank Engine fixation.

It’s not a million miles away from the robot staff of Westworld. They populate a bubblegum-coloured, immersive virtual reality; it’s entertainment, not introspection.

In any case, it’s hard to see how the film could have contained an ensemble cast like this without turning them into game pieces (or comic book characters).

That said, there’s plenty of zing to the pair-offs, including Ladybug’s conversations with Maria Beetle (a largely off-screen Sandra Bullock).

The cameos, when they come, are nudge-wink inside jokes … but nowhere near as twee as they could have been.

If you can get onboard with the excess – and this is almost Bollywood storytelling, with colours and emotions cranked right up – it’s fairly infectious. The film looks and sounds especially good on IMAX, incidentally, as you’d expect of a show pony like this.

Whether that translates to smaller screens remains to be seen. Ultimately, though, even without the bangs, whistles and obligatory cockney accents, Bullet Train excels at telling bloody good stories, and that’s what makes it watchable.

The back stories, character connections and resolutions are audaciously inventive, too. Just when you think a story arc is dead and done, it keeps coming back for more.

There’s lots about Bullet Train that perhaps shouldn’t work. But after years of pandemic, war and economic and environmental apocalypse, maybe this is the shot in the arm you didn’t know you needed.

Bullet Train (2022), directed by David Leitch

What to read or watch next
  • John Wick (David Leitch, assassins)
  • Maria Beetle (source novel by Kōtarō Isaka)
  • The Equalizer (the weary assassin, bullet ballet)
  • The Matrix (bullet ballet, highly stylised worlds)
  • Kill Bill (everything, really)
  • Se7en, Fight Club (Brad Pitt)

Picture credit: mariolagr

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