This review originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.
What’s “cool” at a given time is always a question ripe for debate, especially in an industry as defined by trends as Hollywood. There are only a select few people or things that are cool no matter the decade. Walking through a crowd in a slick outfit with the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” grooving in the background just so happens to be one of those things.
While Saturday Night Fever may have done it first, introducing us to John Travolta’s disco king Tony Manero in Brooklyn, Bullet Train finds a way to do the scene just as well for Brad Pitt’s mercenary, codenamed Ladybug, in Tokyo. It’s the kind of stylish character introduction that immediately sets the tone not just for the character, but the movie as a whole.
Bullet Train is one of those movies that has a certain it factor. Even when it’s trying too hard, and it does try really hard at times, it’s still just plain cool. The main cast all seem to spring from the same fountain of effortless flair that make a stylized movie like Bullet Train memorable.
It all starts with Ladybug’s efforts to turn over a new leaf, Jules Winnfield anyone, while working on what’s supposed to be a simple, less violent snatch-and-grab assignment. An increasingly tangled web of mercenaries, assassins and various others cut from the same cloth threaten to ruin Ladybug’s newfound chill demeanor while on the train though.
First there’s Lemon and Tangerine, the code names for a pair of mercenaries played by a hilarious Brian Tyree Henry and a suave Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The two are on a mission of their own on the train, but very quickly end up stuck in the chaos.
There’s also Andrew Koji playing Kimura, a father looking to avenge an assassination attempt on his son, Joey King as a mysterious young woman with an agenda of her own for the train and even Latin rap sensation Bad Bunny delivering an intense performance as a violent cartel boss named The Wolf. That’s just one part of this large ensemble cast too.
If keeping track of all those characters sounds like a good way to need an aspirin, don’t fret. The magic of Bullet Train is in the details. For a fast-paced action flick, it takes its time to develop every character and accent each requisite detail to the point that it’s never a chore to try to figure out how all the pieces of the script’s puzzle fit together. It’s arguably the highlight of the movie.
Instead of painting itself as some sort of thriller or Hitchcock-inspired suspense film, Bullet Train runs on the ridiculous. Funny coincidences have a huge effect on the film, and they’re never overplayed to be anything more than that.
It allows for characters like Lemon and Tangerine to turn into real scene stealers. In a more serious movie, they might be hard to root for, even bordering on grating at times. Instead, they practically eclipse Pitt’s Ladybug as the stars of the film, reveling in the increasingly violent mayhem while cracking jokes which legitimately land with the audience.
Importantly, they’re counterbalanced by the rageful brooding of Koji’s Kimura in what becomes a crucial balancing act for the movie, however. Without Kimura, and his father played by Hiroyuki Sanada, the movie’s mix of lighthearted antics with graphic violence would make it at risk of falling into becoming a poor Quentin Tarantino parody.
That’s partly due to Pitt’s Ladybug. While the dialogue alludes to a weather-beaten character, viewers really only see that side of Ladybug in a slapstick light. It never comes across disingenuous, but it becomes hard to shake the feeling that the movie is desperate to be witty at times. It’s a relatable trait for movie reviewers everywhere, but one that still becomes a bit of a drag when the quips and wisecracks don’t quite land in some major scenes.
It also makes some shockingly violent sequences feel a little bit awkward for the viewer. While certain scripting choices feel like unhinged brilliance in the movie’s many graphic fights, an early montage set to Engelbert Humperdinck of all people stands out in that regard, others feel cringeworthy and uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, the good far outweighs the bad and the movie’s sense of style reigns supreme over it all. Whenever something goes amiss or a joke doesn’t quite land clean, there’s always that sense of timeless cool ready to get the movie back on track. It makes Bullet Train one of the year’s easiest recommended viewings.
Spotlight Score: 8/10