Director – David Leitch – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 126m
A man boards a bullet train in Tokyo to steal a suitcase only to be prevented from leaving the train every time he tries to get off it – lightweight action thriller is out in UK cinemas on Wednesday, August 3rd
This adaptation of mystery writer Kotoro Isaka’s 2010 novel, for which the Japanese title literally translates as Maria Beetle, concerns five assassins, each with their separate agenda, who board a bullet train. The film casts Westerners in many of these roles, repopulating the film with an international cast of Americans, Brits and Japanese. Brad Pitt as the lead obviously has box office clout, and is as watchable as ever in this film, however the film has inevitably been accused of whitewashing (even though ‘white’ here would seem to include Puerto Rican and African-American).
The producers here seem to think Japanese high speed rail journeys will draw international audiences but entirely Japanese characters will not. Whether or not they’re correct, casting the film the way they have reinforces this notion. Who else could have done it, you ask? Off the top of my head, I can think of three Hong Kong Chinese, any of whom would work: Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan or Tony Leung Chiu-wai. If you want a Japanese, how about ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano or Tadanobu Asano or Masataka Kubota (First Love, Takashii Miike, 2019), the last two admittedly not so well-known internationally?
At least they have the wit to underscore Pitt’s initial appearance with a Japanese artist’s rerecording of the Bee Gees song Staying Alive, complete with feet walking towards camera straight out of Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977).
In constant voice communication with his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, unseen until the end), Ladybug (Brad Pitt) – so called because he seems to attract bad luck – boards a bullet train in Tokyo bound for Kyoto for a seemingly simple job which involves stealing a suitcase then getting off at the next stop. But when the door opens for the regulated one-minute stop, he is confronted with The Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio aka Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny), a Mexican who wants to kill him the moment he lays eyes upon him. The Wolf has mistaken Ladybug for another assassin called the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), who he correctly believes to be on the train and who kills him targets with a snake venom which kills in 30 seconds by making the blood congeal and leach out of facial orifices. An escaped snake of this species is also lose on the train.
Elsewhere on the train are Kimura (Andrew Koji) who seeks vengeance against The Prince (Joey King) who pushed his son off an apartment building roof and two British assassins who work together: Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). The latter duo is charged with bringing both his missing son and his suitcase of money back to Russian-born, Japanese crime lord the White Death (Michael Shannon), but the suitcase soon goes missing while the son is dead. The White Death doesn’t yet know this, and is waiting to receive both at the end of the line in Kyoto.
The framework – a bullet train, one minute-long stops at stations where Ladybug repeatedly tries to leave the train and fails – is a stroke of genius, ably augmented by special effects achieved by screens outside train windows showing footage speeding through the Japanese countryside (it’s actually speeded up to 250 miles per hour as the production wasn’t allowed to film on an actual bullet train). The final reel throws in a bullet train crash which, however, despite an hilarious take worthy of Looney Tunes cartoons in which the impact causes Ladybug to fly through the carriage interior, suffers from exterior shots where the weight and gravity effects of the trains don’t appear properly worked out, so that the ensuing mayhem doesn’t feel real. Indeed, this extends to the exterior shots of the travelling train: you feel like you’re watching CG effects rather than buying into it’s being the real thing.
The performances are impressive. Pitt seems just right as the killer who has done much soul-searching after various jobs have gone wrong, and constantly and hilariously offers advice to others about making peace with the Universe (although, again, imagine some of the aforementioned South East Asian actors doing that). King manages to augment her character – no-one knows what The Prince looks like and assume them to be a man – with a little schoolgirl lost look, making her scheming psychopath all the more dangerous. Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine is all smart suits contrasted with swearing every fifth word while Henry’s Lemon has life lessons appropriate to every situation gleaned from Thomas The Tank Engine. Bad Bunny’s The Wolf and Beetz’ The Hornet are suitably edgy.
The Japanese-English Koji as Kimura and the Japanese Hiroyuki Sanada as his father who joins the train later on seem to give a more believable weight to the whole, possibly because of their ethnicity. Michael Shannon delivers compelling action flashbacks wherein he plays Russian Roulette with himself before using the same gun to kill opponents. Sandra Bullock’s Japanese-eponymous Maria finally appears at the end – the brief nature of her part feels like a reversal of Brad Pitt’s likewise brief appearance in The Lost City (Aaron Nee, Adam Nee, 2021).
Channing Tatum appears (uncredited) as a passenger, who seems to have wandered into the film and simply wants to hook up with other men for sex, is an hilarious high point. The amount of time he gets in the film is judged exactly right: the old showbiz mantra of leaving you wanting more. Also good are some Japanese bit parts way down the cast list: Masi Oka as the officious ticket collector whose intransigence causes Ladybug, who has dropped his ticket, much grief, Karen Fukuhara as the concession lady who blunders into one of the fight scenes and sells Ladybug a bottle of water and Naomi Matsuda as the impatient woman waiting to use the (high-tech Japanese) loo in which Ladybug has taken refuge from assorted killers on the train. There’s also someone wearing a large furry costume to promote an anime series.
Plot twists, visual gags and action set pieces come thick and fast, yet somehow the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together as well as the superb, rapid fire trailer (which otherwise accurately represents the film) suggests. Some characters appear in the narrative only to be dispatched so fast you never really get to know them. It’s not the concept, or the performances which are at fault – maybe it’s the script, the pacing or the editing… The stunts are effective too (which given director David Leitch’s prior career as a stuntman and co-directing John Wick, 2014, isn’t entirely surprising). The whole thing just doesn’t quite work.
Nevertheless, there remains much to enjoy here. But it’s a shame it plays out as so-so, because without the whitewashing and with better pacing and visual effects, it could have been truly incredible.
Bullet Train is out in cinemas in the UK on Wednesday, August 3rd.