Since Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and Robert Rodriguez and their ilk first started riddling the screen with rapid-fire dialogue to complement equally rapid-fire bullets, the quippy, self-aware ultra-violent action film has become ubiquitous. When done well, you laugh while trying to avoid having blood splash in your face. When not done well, like with Bullet Train, it just comes across as, well, trying too hard.
All sorts of action, intrigue, and carnage can be thrilling, especially when confined to the contained space of a bullet train hurtling at hundreds of miles an hour. Throw in a bunch of assassins and hit men unknowingly into the same space, all with different assignments, and it should be a fun tangled mess. But while Bullet Train has a great cast, is super-stylish, and has cartoonish, choreographed violence to spare, the script isn’t, well, as funny as it pretends to be (or it should be), leaving an action film that ends up being kind of exhausting.
Brad Pitt, as we all know, can be as funny as he is pretty–and he certainly tries his best as Ladybug, a hitman who is having doubts about his career of violence peppered with bad luck. Goofy and out of place on the Japanese train in his floppy hat and chunky glasses, he spends an inordinate time on the phone with his handler (Sandra Bullock) who seems to also serve as his therapeutic counselor. His task, to grab a metal briefcase and get off the train, seems simple enough. Except for the fact that there are more than half a dozen other bad folks on board with guns, fighting skills, and their own nefarious assignments that want to keep that from happening.
Among the handfuls of characters, there are “the twins” Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about their code names and about Thomas the Train, both conversations of which get tiring very quickly. You also get a schoolgirl-assassin with a huge grudge (Joey King), because of course the only woman who gets any notable screen time in a movie like this is wearing a schoolgirl outfit. And you have two competing powerful elders, The White Death (Michael Shannon with a bizarre Russian accent), and, well, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada, who seems like he is in a much better film). All of these folks (and more!) have something to prove, something to steal, or someone to kill.
Like many movies these days, Bullet Train is about half an hour too long. It doesn’t help that the high body count seems double of what it actually is because many characters seem to have to die twice. (He’s dead! But wait, not really! Nope! This time for real! Wait, you thought this part was over, but it is not really… let’s do that one more time, this time for real!) Again, if it were more clever than it is, this might be excusable, but instead it ends up dragging the plot out like a video game where characters get additional lives for the sake of keeping the carnage going.
The moments where Bullet Train is truly funny involve the surprise cameos by a couple of well-known actors that don’t appear in the credits. In particular, you’ll recognize a certain passenger who has a short but hilarious interaction with Brad Pitt’s Ladybug. Judging by the delighted guffaws from the audience, this was a tease of what Bullet Train could have been. Instead you get a comic bloodbath that both tries too hard while not trying hard enough.