We have had snakes on a plane. We’ve also had zombies on a train, and ghosts on a ship. But now, we have assassins on a train. Based on the Maria Beetle manga by Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train is the latest film by Atomic Blonde director David Leitch. Starring an ensemble cast, Bullet Train follows Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a skilled assassin who is unexpectedly recruited by his handler Maria Beetle to collect a briefcase on a Kyoto-bound shinkansen (or ‘bullet train’) in Japan. Ladybug soon encounters several assassins onboard but everyone slowly discovers there is something afoot. But as they try and figure out what is going on, does Bullet Train stay on course or does it derail?
Given its Japanese source material, Bullet Train’s casting is notably affected by whitewashing. There are only two Asian actors amid the core cast (Snake Eyes actor Andrew Koji and Mortal Kombat’s Hiroyuki Sanada) so the diversity in Bullet Train – or notable lack of it – is shocking. Recent Hollywood films such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Crazy Rich Asians and this year’s hit Everything Everywhere All at Once have all showcased Asian talent with amazing results, so Bullet Train comes across as a missed opportunity to highlight Japanese talent in a big-budget Hollywood production – despite Isaka’s comments on the ethnic ambiguity of his characters.
But Leitch’s direction and Zak Olkewicz’s screenplay do not relieve this issue. Instead, supporting non-White characters have a fleeting presence, cultural tropes and clashes become vehicles for comedy (such as Ladybug’s fascination with Japanese toilets) and a Japanese crime organisation is led by a ruthless Russian known as ‘White Death’. Even various subplots involving The Prince (Joey King) see a White character call the shots. Needless to say, it feels like one big step back after several small ones have been taken.
However, this doesn’t stop Bullet Train from being fun. Set in a country known for its politeness and courtesy, Japan creates a perfect backdrop for chaos and gore. Between the dazzling neon lights and the colourful cute cartoon characters, it also provides a neutral playing field for the characters to let loose with a Deadpool-esque comedic narrative. Having most of the film confined to one shinkansen is brilliant – there are no elaborate car chases or an armoury at hand; nobody can really escape (thanks to the famed punctuality of Japanese trains) and with a journey time of 2¾ hours at a speed of 199mph, time is of the essence.
Needless to say, things go astray quickly. Ladybug comes across as an unwilling killer who is perplexed by the ever-changing turn of events. His handler signs him onto a relatively easy job but his pacifist nature (thanks to his therapist) stops him from properly arming himself, so the fact that finds himself quickly drawn into a complex and covert operation without a weapon exposes him for what he is – a loveable doofus. The same can be said for Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), two assassins whose banter around Thomas the Tank Engine occasionally causes them to be repeatedly outwitted.
While the screenplay’s comedic notes threaten to overrule its complex action-thriller elements, Bullet Train’s female characters stabilise the film by offering some semblance of intelligence – the Prince is one of the more cunning, indifferent characters in the ensemble with Deadpool 2’s Zazie Beetz makes a memorable presence as a fellow assassin. By the time the characters realise the depth of their collective dilemma, a belatedly sharp change in tone leads to a no-holds-barred situation with some wince-inducing moments.
Delivering offbeat comedy and consistent physicality, Pitt is consistently entertaining but in reality, he drives the cast to elevate their performances that supersede his own. Standouts include Johnson and Henry, whose brilliant, quick-witted chemistry creates a great double-act, and King brilliantly personifies a classic Japanese character with a cute outfit and big eyes but is actually a surprising badass with a deep grudge. In addition, the cast gets their teeth into the imaginative choreography, especially as cinematic fight scenes onboard trains can be quite difficult to choreograph. Some sequences such as an intense scene in a quiet car have an element of Jackie Chan-inspired slapstick but when the fights really throw the punches, they hit the target hard.
After Atomic Blonde, Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, and Deadpool 2, Leitch has consistently proven that he can deliver the modern popcorn action film. Bullet Train is no exception – what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in surprises, action and unadulterated entertainment. Strap in – it’s one hell of a ride.
Bullet Train is out in UK cinemas from Wednesday 3 August.
Director: David Leitch, Zak Olkewicz (screenwriter)
Stars: Brad Pitt, Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada
Runtime: 126 minutes