8/10 Bullet Train is an exclusive after-party of a movie, an after-dinner engagement for viewers with refined taste. It fails to be the riotous laugh-out-loud comedy it shoots for, but its camerawork, lighting, constant action, stellar costumes and disciplined story make for a fun, supportive watch.
Aboard the three-hour bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, an American hitman codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is assigned to steal a briefcase full of cash intended for a ransom payment, then step off at the first stop. The notoriously unlucky Ladybug is harried at every turn by a wide array of assassins with varying relationships to the kidnapping. The fighting draws him into the heart of Japanese organized crime as the train hurtles toward a rendezvous in Kyoto with its mysterious Russian-born leader known only as the White Death.
Bullet Train is another from director/producer David Leitch, who redefined American action movies when co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski in 2014. Stahelski has stayed on with that series while Leitch has brought the same emphasis on real stuntwork outward, most notably directing 2017’s Atomic Blonde. Bullet Train does what it says on the tin. Action is almost constant, especially around the times of the train stops, because something always has to happen to stop Ladybug from getting off.
Bullet Train seems like an outgrowth of Atomic Blonde toward the colorful and away from the grimy espionage elements, a glamorous fantasy of Japan instead of a brutal reality of divided Berlin. The whole of Bullet Train seems to be meant primarily as a joke, and I’m not sure how well it lands. Doesn’t seem to be an actual joke, just an unfocused desire to be light-hearted. which is not a sin, but it does seem forced.
The joke itself is the plot, the increasingly inbred connections to the White Death, all characters funneling toward him as the train approaches Kyoto. It’s got a nice, disciplined Russian doll structure – linear and non-linear when it needs to be, flashing to backstory only and exactly when the information becomes relevant to the present conflict.
Probably the most interesting thing to me about Bullet Train is its budget – this is another $90 million actioner with no intellectual property attached from a young name director after April’s The Northman, a “mid-budget” experiment in the Disney era when most real blockbusters are drawing $150-200 million budgets, much of that dedicated to exorbitant salaries and animation costs. A lot has been made about the death of the mid-budget movie in modern Hollywood, the space where directors could graduate to after establishing themselves without losing creative control, and the existence of these things, “big-budget” by the standards of any other era and made by directors who are already well-passed where the old “mid-budget” would have taken them, push on that ceiling with their very existence.
The Northman was a box office bomb that is noted for doing well on streaming, but Bullet Train has made its money back, at least. The real heavy hitter here is Jordan Peele’s Nope, budgeted at $68 million and the best-performing original movie since pandemic hit.