Bullet Train: High-Speed Thriller or Train Wreck?


Bullet Train is Brad Pitt’s latest thriller movie, and there’s one burning question in any discussion about it: Was this movie actually any good . . . or did Pitt once again carry a mediocre movie with his looks, wit, and charm? Unfortunately, Bullet Train is a case of the latter: beyond the acting, there was little else to keep this movie from veering off the rails.

The plot seems simple enough: a plethora of assassins from the four corners of the globe all converge on the Shinkansen in pursuit of a briefcase with a mountain of cash inside. Their different motives and methods are what’s supposed to fuel the story, but there’s a buckle in the tracks before we even get there: the train itself. While this is supposedly a story of cramped, inconspicuous improvisation, the train itself feels remarkably empty throughout the ride, prioritizing focus on the main characters over a sense of realism. This sense of emptiness is only exacerbated as the story plows on with barely a thought for the background cast. While there are moments of comic relief as the battling assassins jump through hoops to avoid detection by the regular traingoers, it starts feeling fake pretty quickly. Is no one going to notice the scuffle happening 10 feet behind you, or the bodies that quickly start piling up in various corners? The fact that there are hardly any passengers and that no one seems any the wiser only serves to remind the audience that this is all takes place on a Hollywood set, rather than a genuine high-speed commuter service.

[Ed. Note—ha! Off the rails. Just got that.]

With the setting out of the way, the story in and of itself also sees its fair share of derailments. What’s supposed to be a smooth, contiguous train ride is incessantly punctuated by flashbacks that conveniently contextualize the situation at hand. Granted, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and some movies pull this off spectacularly well. In Bullet Train, however, these only serve to break the action with spurts of exposition that probably should’ve been introduced earlier on. There’s no gratification in these “surprise” reveals, as there’s hardly any buildup and they often feel shoehorned into the larger story. Show, don’t tell. Once the movie finally gets on with the “showing,” it’s too late: things have already started to spiral out of control. One logical leap follows another until you simply can’t help but wonder why no one in the outside world has noticed the chaos that slowly but surely envelops the train. Several murders go unnoticed, the background cast is convinently evacuated once it actually gets dangerous, and Pitt’s character is able to take bone-shattering impacts by simply walking it off.

Speaking of characters, that’s where the movie’s hope lies: its diverse and engaging cast. Every one of the assassins and mercenaries is wildly different from the others, and their individual foibles and quirks help to cement them as distinct figures, each with their own agenda revolving around a single target. Pitt, alias “Ladybug,” just wants to steal the briefcase and get off the train ASAP. He’s done with deadly drama and just wants to finish the job. Mercs Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) need to protect the briefcase for a Russian mob boss, a seemingly simple task that soon proves to be more than they bargained for. Throughout the movie, Ladybug, Lemon, and Tangerine elevate the plot with brilliant performances full of wit, cunning, and genuine reactions to their ordeal that elicit empathy from the audience. Unfortunately, with such a rampantly chaotic storyline, that’s pretty much it in the way of character development. Several threats are simply killed off before we learn much about them, some are painfully one-dimensional in everything they do, and others’ development comes too little, too late, in a scene after much of the action has already ensued, which makes it feel more like a break before the big finish than anything. As I watched the movie, I found myself only enjoying scenes where Ladybug, Lemon, and/or Tangerine were making themselves a part of the story. In the end, the endearing trio ended up carrying much of the story in a movie that desperately needed it.

In the end, Bullet Train was a decent movie, but there were major drawbacks that prevented it from being the hit that I wanted it to be. Because of its lackluster scenery and thin story, it’s the actors themselves that ultimately salvage this movie for me. The performances of Pitt, Henry, and Taylor-Johnson made me forgive many of the film’s shortcomings if it meant seeing them perform their dangerous yet comedic antics once again. If you’re a fan of these actors and want to see more of their on-screen charm, it certainly won’t be a bad experience. But if you’d rather pass for something more cohesive, nobody’s blaming you.