Review by Alex Garrett
No matter how pretentious and contrarian my opinions about films may be, ultimately, I am a simple man. When I was about 14-15, I believed that Kingsman: The Secret Service was one of the greatest films of all time, valuing its visceral fight scenes and curse-laden dialogue (that I confess are still very entertaining) over any sort of themes or character development — mainly to scandalise my mum. Even today, after a long week of cerebral black-and-white dramas and avant-garde European wankery, there’s still nothing like a nice indulgent action-comedy to wash off the stench of “art-house” dreck. One cannot live on Dogme 95 and My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle, 1981) alone; you need a balanced diet, comfort food — perhaps some Edgar Wright or Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008). In this light, films like Bullet Train (David Leitch, 2022) can serve a certain purpose, not just to “turn your brain off” and let any semblance of critical taste leak out your ears (that’s Disney’s job), but to relax a little, have some fun, and let the quips and carnage unfold.
However, since this is a review, a bit more scrutiny is required. You’ve got “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt, looking like a middle-aged Kurt Cobain), a reformed ex-hitman whose confused New-Age mantras and absurd obliviousness provide some excellent comic relief. You’ve got “the Twins”, “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Henry as the world’s deadliest Thomas the Tank Engine enthusiast) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, treading a fine line between Guy Ritchie gangster and Jay from The Inbetweeners), two sharp-dressed London assassins with great back-and-forth chemistry, arguably the highlight of the film. You’ve got Yuichi (Andrew Koji, downtrodden contender for Father of the Year), blackmailed into an assassination plot by “The Prince” (Joey King, devilishly deceptive apart from her dodgy British accent), injecting the narrative with tension and smug malevolence. You’ve got major characters getting gratuitously killed off after about three minutes of screen-time — always a fun genre staple. You’ve got a briefcase full of money owed to infamous crime-lord “The White Death” (Michael Shannon, whose sinister scenery-chewing is so indulgent that his dodgy Russian accent only makes it better). Lastly, you’ve got the shittiest bullet train in Japanese history, whose staff and security exhibit the kind of ludicrous and actively spiteful negligence only found from Franz Kafka or Ryanair. Is this film car-industry propaganda?
As you might expect, Bullet Train has to manage a lot of spinning plates, a task further complicated by the constant procession of flashbacks, callbacks, Chekhov’s guns, and cutaway gags littered throughout the narrative. Some are executed surprisingly well (the boomslang), others not so much (that fucking Fiji bottle, I swear to god), but overall it is the sheer quantity of diegetic interruptions — on top of multiple intersecting storylines — that makes the viewing experience rather exhausting. By the last half-hour, the unending barrage of twists and fake-out endings felt like I was re-watching Return of the King. However, in any standard action-comedy, having a consistently compelling plot is usually just a pleasant side-dish; cathartic action and character-charisma are what keep arses in seats. In this regard, Bullet Train delivers impeccably, exploring practically every possible manner in which you can fight on a train (LUAS passengers, take notes). Personally, my favourite highlights included the quiet car fight scene, Ladybug and the Twins’ dire attempts at deception, the final katana duel — my inner weeb teenager was in heaven — and, of course, Channing Tatum’s cameo. Take a bow and accept that Oscar. Overall, if you’re craving some well-choreographed martial arts and decently-written violent humour to scratch that action-comedy itch, Bullet Train should be right up your alley. If not, then go back to pretending to enjoy Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, 2015) or Conversations with Friends (Lenny Abrahamson, 2022), you miserable dead-eyed psychopath.