Lucky, unlucky, the strands of fate, the machinations of malicious design, chaotic improvisation and carefully orchestrated plans. It all collides at high speed beneath the setting sun and rising moon, questioning our agency, our decisions, whether anything we claim to choose has any active impact or if it’s all been preordained by forces far outside our control. Dominos fall – someone is sick, someone is in trouble, someone is in the wrong spot, someone makes the right choice – and these tiny changes build to devastating consequences, death and destruction seemingly at the end of every branching path. Perhaps a clever setup were it not so ultimately contrived and empty, an exercise in stylistically driven chaos that has little interest in actually utilizing the themes it flirts with for anything beyond repetitious punchlines and unrelenting cameos.
Bullet Train’s biggest fault is that despite its repeated attempts to obfuscate its rote formulaic narrative through flashy style echoing Guy Ritchie, it’s exactly what you expect it to be. It offers little to nothing of value that nearly every other identically positioned studio action blockbuster of the last ten years hasn’t already done, and it’s indicative of how inert and lifeless much of the genre has become of late. It is functionally built action with just enough moments that take it all over the top. It is witty and sharp, and nearly every character ultimately affects the same base level attitude of wry sarcasm. It ends with a colossal CG disaster of a finale that’s entirely unnecessary and does little but add pointless bloat to an already excessively long film. It throws a few cameos at you that barely mean anything, only serving as small moments where the audience can point and laugh at the sight of a person they recognize.
It’s an exhausting film, cinematic excess not executed in the way that cinematic excess demands to feel satisfying and exciting. Every character gets a flashy freeze frame title card introducing them, characters receive lengthy backstories only to die moments later, certain moments are called back to and replayed ad nauseam, and far too many things that feel impactfully consequential are reversed moments later. It is Chekov’s gun as a film, where every object is explained expositionally with the intent that it will come back later and you will anticipate its end use, but it happens so frequently that it eventually just feels tiring along with the rest of it. It reaches a point where the number of characters, objects, and setups awaiting execution is so great that it all just stops mattering. The intended impact is lost somewhere between Nagoya and Kyoto as the train speeds across Japan.
So much of Bullet Train might be lost in the weeds, drowned by overwrought pacing, frenzied editing, and flashy style that never leaves the film quite enough time to breathe, but despite all that seems to be actively working against it, it actually manages to have a lot of fun when it’s not trying so hard to self-destruct. Brad Pitt’s unlucky by design Ladybug is a consistent delight – maybe plagued by the same endemic witty dialogue that’s so tiringly inescapable, but he’s charming enough to sell the whole film with his zen, “let’s consider settling this more amicably” hitman. The action might be mostly functional and a little behind the inventive originally that once sold David Leitch as the next great action director in Hollywood, but when it gets a little room to breathe it successfully infuses the film with just enough of the life it needs to keep chugging along at rapid pace.
It’s nothing to write home about. It’s all style and a paper thin façade of substance playing a flashy magic trick by weaving too many narratives that often feel vestigial and one too many jokes that don’t quite land, but in the middle of it all is a solid enough film with just enough well executed style and tangible visual flair that it doesn’t feel nearly as turgid and lifeless as many of its recent peers. If Leitch were a little more willing to apply the brakes and take things back to focusing on narratives fueled more by the action itself and less by the unending deluge of colliding and contrived character motivations, I might be a little more willing to buy a ticket for his next train.