“You never know what horrible fate your bad luck saved you from,” is one of many philosophical lines about luck and fate in the slick but satisfying thriller, “Bullet Train.” The film, manically directed by David Leitch (“Deadpool 2”), has several characters, from Ladybug (Brad Pitt) to the Prince (Joey King), to the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) talking or waxing poetically about fate and luck, luck and fate.
There also several characters, including Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — aka “The Twins,” and yes, named after the fruits — who talk about Thomas the Tank Engine. (Lemon learned to read people from watching Thomas.) All this talk, while witty and amusing, balances out the film’s action, which is also witty and amusing, as well as extremely, excessively, and gleefully violent. One “funny” gratuitously violent sequence has Lemon and Tangerine recounting exactly how many people died in an episode that might give Guy Ritchie fits of envy — and it’s scored to Engelbert Humperdink’s “Pretty Ribbons.” Another involves seeing a character after half their head is literally blown off, which provides a fantastic sight gag. There’s more, much more. Some of it funny, some of it painful, some of it is both.
The plot is as simple as the assignment that Ladybug’s handler, Mari Beetle (Sandra Bullock), gives him: Get on the Bullet Train to Kyoto. Get the briefcase with the sticker on the handle. Get off the train at the next station. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. But, of course, it’s not. Ladybug encounters trouble at every turn, from a conductor who keeps popping up asking for his ticket — he lost it prior to boarding; such is his “biblical” bad luck — to The Wolf (Bad Bunny) who has plans to kill Ladybug for spilling his drink on his suit during his wedding. (There’s more than just a laundry bill to that story, and it involves vomiting as well as bleeding from the eyes. Again, the film is excessive; the sequence in question is shown multiple times over lest viewers forget the indelible images.)
Bad Bunny in “Bullet Train” (Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures)
But like “Bullet Train,” it is easy to digress. Take some of the other violent backstories that unfold. The Father (Andrew Koji) is on board to get revenge on the person who pushed his son off a roof and landed him in the hospital. Lemon and Tangerine are babysitting the sticker-handled briefcase and The Son (Logan Lerman) as they were hired to deliver both to White Death (Michael Shannon), a kingpin in the Japanese underworld whose rise to power is recounted in a fiery and bloody flashback. (It too, is shown multiple times.)
Also along for the ride is Hornet (Zazie Beetz), who has an agenda that involves a stolen boomslang — so yes, a snake’s on the trail. In addition, a giant inflatable Japanese anime character and a bottle of Fiji water are also seamlessly incorporated into the action.
“Bullet Train” provides a rollicking good ride for most of its two hours. Ladybug has a series of epic fights, each more creative than the last. One has him defending himself against Wolf wielding the sticker-handled briefcase as a weapon. Another has him fighting Lemon in the quiet car, much to the chagrin of a perturbed passenger. But what makes the film so much fun is that the audience mostly knows of what is going on while the characters don’t. This generates some real frisson when Lemon, The Father, and the Prince meet, draw guns, shed tears, and make the wrong decision when they think they are making the right one. There’s that fate and luck again.
For all the reversals of fortune, the film does provide some very funny moments, from two hilarious cameos to a bit when Ladybug holes up in a bathroom and gets familiar with the bidet and air-drying features of a smart toilet.
The film doesn’t take itself seriously, despite all the talk of luck and fate, but the characters are also mostly cartoonish, which is a bit of a drawback. Pitt is typically suave as Ladybug, but he is going through some soul-searching. His mindful platitudes are meant to be diverting — they literally give him (and audiences) the chance to rest and breathe and process amid all the mayhem — but they do get tiresome. Likewise, the banter between Lemon and Tangerine often feels forced, like something out of a Tarantino film. Both Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Henry Tyree are in fine form here, but they are also a bit insufferable. The other supporting characters are less well-drawn, though Bad Bunny’s Wolf is a hoot. Joey King’s The Prince and Zazie Beetz’s Hornet are one-note. When a wild-haired Michael Shannon turns up to chew the scenery and kill people in the last act, he injects the film with some verve.
For all the screwball comedy, droll retorts, and kinetic action, “Bullet Train” entertains, until it goes over-the-top, which is not long before the train literally goes off the rails. Things get especially ridiculous when a character jumps onto the back of the speeding train and punches through the glass with their fist! It just strains credibility. So too, do several of the other action set pieces but the film is not concerned with realism. “Bullet Train” wants to give viewers a good time. As luck, or fate, would have it, it pretty much does.
“Bullet Train” is now in theaters. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
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