The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours and 15 minutes — just the right amount of time to pull off a cartoonishly over-the-top action movie, in which half a dozen assassins shoot, stab and otherwise perforate each other’s pretty little faces in pursuit of a briefcase stuffed with cash. It’s a high-stakes game of hot potato, choreographed and executed by “Atomic Blonde” director David Leitch, in which a self-deprecating Brat Pitt wears a bucket hat and oversize specs, Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play bickering “twin” hit men Lemon and Tangerine, and “The Princess” wedding crasher Joey King (known here as the Prince) is a cunning killer who can fake-cry on command.
These quirky characters — and a handful of others, with names like the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and the Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) — are identified by giant on-screen labels superimposed over their flash-frozen mugs, the way Martin Scorsese or Guy Ritchie sometimes intro their ensembles. “Bullet Train” feels like it comes from the same brain as “Snatch,” wearing its pop style on its sleeve — a “Kill Bill”-level mix of martial arts, manga and gabby hit-man-movie influences, minus the vision or wit that implies.
Adapting the pulp Kotaro Isaka novel “MariaBeetle” for a mostly Western cast, Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz make each of these characters twice as eccentric as necessary, lest audiences’ attention wane for an instant. Maria (as voiced by Sandra Bullock) is the bug in Pitt’s ear, guiding the newly nonviolent tough guy (this anger management joke recently featured in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” as well) through what’s supposed to be the cinchiest job of his career:
Board the bullet train in Tokyo, grab the MacGuffin and step off at the next stop. Cha-ching goes the choo-choo. Except for Ladybug (as Pitt’s character is dubbed) is hella unlucky, and there appear to be more murderers crammed together here than Agatha Christie could fit on the Orient Express.
Meanwhile, innocent bystanders are at a minimum. There’s a busybody woman who keeps shushing Ladybug and Lemon when their fistfighting gets too disruptive, but after a few stops, practically the only passengers who remain aboard are ones who would kill for that briefcase. There’s also an incredibly poisonous boomslang snake, whose venom takes effect in 30 seconds, making victims bleed from their eyes, like poor Logan Lerman (the first character to bite it, serving out the rest of the film in floppy-corpsed “Weekend at Bernie’s” mode).
The Bullet Train Showcases Realistic Fight Scenes
The fight scenes in Bullet Train feel relatively original, which is impressive unto itself, considering how many other creative filmmakers are trying to distinguish themselves in the genre. Leitch tends to approach these standoffs the way Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire once did their dance numbers: The violence needn’t be taken literally (which is tough at times, considering how brutal the bloodshed can be), but rather appreciated mostly for their choreography and capacity to surprise.
Still, there’s something callous about how casually Leitch takes human life. “Bullet Train” reps one of the first and most ambitious pandemic-made blockbusters to be released, demonstrating that Leitch and company felt confident enough the world would go back to normal that they could have the Prince push a 6-year-old off a roof just to lure the kid’s father (Andrew Koji, by far the film’s weakest link) onto the bullet train. King’s character is a real piece of work, wearing a black bob and pink schoolgirl-style getup. She’s a heartless manipulator, frequently posing as an innocent victim to ensnare her prey.