What to Watch Verdict
Brad Pitt has a ball as a hippy assassin, but ultimately he has more fun than the audience.
Pitt's star power
Fast, sleek and slick
Thomas The Tank Engine rules!
Goes off the rails in the last half hour
Fades from memory all too quickly
As the summer blockbuster season reaches peak action, something of a rarity is gliding into cinemas. A big action movie that stands alone, without a big-budget franchise to draw in the crowds. Instead, Bullet Train relies on the good old-fashioned pulling power of one single star name: Brad Pitt.
And, while David Leitch's manga-based actioner is fundamentally an ensemble piece, it's clear right from the outset that this is Pitt’s film. He’s the hitman— code name Ladybug — at the center of the action, returning to his career after a run of bad luck and heavy-duty therapy.
Ladybug is getting started with what seems like a simple mission: steal a briefcase stuffed with money from two other assassins (Aaron Taylor Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry). But with what seems like a regiment of killers on board the bullet train that's speeding towards Kyoto — one with a grudge against Pitt, one trying to kill the young son of another traveler, and the towering evil of The White Death (Michael Shannon) — it’s never going to be as easy as it sounds.
Leitch, of course, has form when it comes to kick-ass movies. With a back catalog that includes Atomic Blonde, Fast And Furious: Hobbs And Shaw, John Wick and Deadpool 2, you know what’s coming well before the lights go down and the train pulls out of its first station. There's action aplenty: crunching fights, guns, knives and everything else in his arsenal, laced with sharp physical and verbal humor. The recipe remains unchanged, even though the story is set in Japan, everything is neon-soaked and the backdrop has been swapped to the ultimate in 21st-century hi-tech travel.
The train itself is essentially a device to give the story some much-needed structure. It stops at a number of stations along the way, but the doors are only open for precisely one minute, allowing the audience the opportunity to breathe after the latest blast of action, but also creating some of the film’s sharpest moments.
Aside from that, it’s all about the assassins, and Pitt’s in particular. With scruffy hair and a bucket hat, he’s the least likely killer you can imagine and his newly found hippy way of life is reminiscent of a certain Il Duderino although, judging by the length of some of his fights, he’s not into the whole brevity thing. Constantly quoting his therapist, who rejoices in the name of Barry, he’s slightly ridiculous yet entertaining, and the actor’s clearly having a blast in the role.
There are times, however, when Pitt is in serious danger of having the film stolen right from under his nose by the unlikely but joyous double act of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry, aka hitmen Tangerine and Lemon. Taylor-Johnson appears to have walked straight off the set of a Guy Ritchie movie, complete with the requisite "cor blimey" accent, while Henry echoes Pitt by regularly quoting his own philosophy on life. Except that— we kid you not— his guru is Thomas The Tank Engine, whose stories have provided him with a non-stop mantra. That his hero is the complete opposite of the hi-tech bullet train just adds to the laughter.
The cast is all enjoying themselves so much, Pitt especially, that it prompts a nagging question: does the audience feel the same? On the surface, it appears so: the stylized fights, the voiceovers, the cameos (one in particular), the crazy characters, and the overall cartoon style are all there for that very purpose and there’s plenty of audible laughter.
However, as it enters its final half hour, the film dramatically runs out of steam, relying on increasingly far-fetched twists and bigger and messier spectacle to keep us involved. It doesn’t work. By this stage, both the movie and our attention are definitely flagging, and the film is going down a branch line to nowhere. And that sense of excitement and fun is fading fast so that, far too soon after the credits roll, memories of its high spots are no longer buzzing around in the way they should be. Like the bullet train itself, it’s all rather fleeting.
But, aside from that final half hour, Bullet Train is slick and speedy and, as summer blockbusters go, it ticks more than enough boxes to get the queues forming. Pitt’s star appeal and magnetism are crucial in keeping it moving but, ultimately, it’s just a little bit soulless.
Bullet Train is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday, 3 July and hits US theaters on Friday, August 5 (see our Bullet Train cast article for a who's who guide to everyone in the film).
Freda can't remember a time when she didn't love films, so it's no surprise that her natural habitat is a darkened room in front of a big screen. She started writing about all things movies about eight years ago and, as well as being a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic, is a regular voice on local radio on her favorite subject.
While she finds time to watch TV as well — her tastes range from Bake Off to Ozark — films always come first. Favourite film? The Third Man. Top ten? That's a big and complicated question .....!