There are plenty of big, dumb action movies that can deliver thrills without exactly taxing the brain. And then there are films that are so thunderously stupid they bypass guilty-pleasure status and end up as a danger to themselves and all around them. Bullet Train falls into the latter camp. It’s so imbecilic, you wouldn’t trust it to cross the road unsupervised, let alone negotiate Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network.
The premise, adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel, is simple: Brad Pitt plays a privately contracted operative, codenamed Ladybug, who is hired by unknown clients to execute various shady missions. These could involve assassinations, but since he’s re-entering the murky mercenary waters after a period of soul-searching and therapy, his first gig back is theoretically an easy one. He just has to steal a silver briefcase on a bullet train heading to Kyoto. But Ladybug is cursed with appalling luck. And it turns out that the whole train is packed with hired killers, extravagantly armed with guns, swords, grudges and a selection of toxins, all of whom seem intent on knifing each other in the face.
Key among the cast are a British duo with a near-fraternal bond: Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Taylor-Johnson is a sharp-suited geezer who looks, like so much in this brash, hollow film, as though he could have been transplanted from Matthew Vaughn’s obnoxious Kingsman series. Henry, meanwhile, is lumbered with a thankless idiot-savant role. Lemon is obsessed with – I kid you not – the children’s book series Thomas the Tank Engine, and claims that it provides a blueprint by which to read a person’s core traits. Thus a Henry is essentially decent, but a Diesel is nefarious and slippery. Predictably, the cast of Bullet Train skews towards the Diesel end of the spectrum.
Also on board is a schoolgirl who goes by the name of Prince (Joey King), who may be the innocent bystander she claims to be. But as previous Japan-set action movies, notably Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, have taught us, schoolgirls are rarely to be trusted. She’s the only female character of note – it comes to something when a disposable plastic water bottle gets more of a backstory than the other women in the film.
Monumentally dull-witted as it is, it’s not only the cloddish plotting that sends this picture to the dunce’s corner. Other equally lunkish movies are redeemed by their action sequences. And director David Leitch, the man behind high-octane stabathons such as Atomic Blonde, certainly knows his way around a fight sequence. But the film’s gimmick – the train setting – is also a problem. An inventive close-quarters battle on public transport can be a thing of real beauty – just look at the bus sequences in Nobody and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for two recent examples. But if all the combat choreography is contained within the metal tube of a train carriage, it soon starts to get a little repetitive, no matter how many samurai swords and venomous snakes you throw into the mix.
But there’s a further issue: the tone. Bullet Train is infuriatingly pleased with itself. And ground zero for this implosion of self-satisfaction is Pitt. There’s a school of thought that argues that Pitt is the film’s saving grace. Certainly, he’s one of the more likable elements. He plays his character like an affable golden retriever that has swallowed a self-help manual, sporadically coughing up a semi-masticated personal growth tip. But he’s also, in many ways, culpable for this mess. The Pitt celebrity is the freight that gave the project its momentum in the first place; his involvement is presumably the reason that nobody demanded a rewrite, or at the very least a tighter edit, to slam on the emergency brakes and avert the inevitable disaster.