The world is a better place every time a new train movie graces a multiplex for the first time. That’s a hill I’m comfortable dying on. And despite all efforts to undermine this by stunt person turned director David Leitch, this is still largely true for Bullet Train.
Adapted from the Japanese novel Maria Beetle by Kōtarō Isaka, the Sony Pictures produced film—like most American adaptations of Japanese works—neglects Japanese talents in favor of white ones. The novel was entirely Japanese, and, other than a few side characters, most have been whitewashed. With the exception of the titular transportation infrastructure of the bullet train, there’s no reason the adaptation couldn’t have either cast Japanese actors or completely rid itself of the origin country by putting the train somewhere else entirely. Both options would have been better than what resulted.
Brad Pitt, whose age seems to have finally caught up to his looks, stars as “Ladybug,” the alias (which makes more sense in a Japanese mythic ethos) for a “biblically unlucky” assassin. His lack of luck is one of the very few comedic patterns in Bullet Train that manages to work more than it misses. He’s tasked with recovering a suitcase on a Japanese bullet train, but after quickly recovering the asset, his bad luck commences: he’s not the only trained killer on the train.
Two of the other killers, Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), are almost unbearable. The two have no comedic chemistry or timing together, and Taylor-Johnson is lifeless as Tangerine. Henry is fine enough as Lemon, but the character is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine—and the screenwriters seem to think this is funny enough on its own, so they lazily return to his obsession without punch-line or set-up almost every time we see the character. The joke grows old almost open first mention.
Lemon’s obsession is almost dumb enough to shadow its insidiousness. His love for Thomas stems from the fact that the children’s show taught him “everything [he] knows about people.” That is, people fit into nice-and-tight categories, like “Diesel” or “Percy.” That’s the same anthropology as systemic racism but with a more palatable delivery method. Ladybug himself even has a racist streak to him, boxing people into cultural stereotypes: “I thought they bowed here?” To declare all people fall into one easily predictable “type” is dangerous in any story, but especially in a story as culturally inconsiderate as the whitewashing Bullet Train.
Speaking of trains, despite my love for any movie entirely set on a locomotive, the filmmaking didn’t necessitate the location of a train. One of the quintessential aspects of a good train movie is the multi-car oner, with the camera giving a long single-shot of most or all of the important cars to the story. It’s not just fun, but also important given that typical master shots aren’t easily accomplished within the narrow architecture of a train. Another defining characteristic of the genre is an artful dependency on the directions of the cars—Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a movie I’m not terribly fond of, shows tremendous discipline precisely where Bullet Train shows negligence. In Bong’s movie, the direction of the movement within the camera corresponds to the direction of the cars: to the right means to move forward in the train, and to move left means to move backward. Forward and backward have meaning. In David Leitch’s movie, direction matters not. The effect is that viewers have no understanding of the relationship of one car to the next. (After watching, see if you can remember what’s before and after the car with the giant cartoon stuffed animal. I certainly can’t.) This could have been any type of single-location movie: a hotel, a casino, a boat, etc…
All being said, it’s still set on a train (yay!) and has more than competent action—and that counts for something. Right?
dir. David Leitch
Opens Friday, 8/5 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and pretty much everywhere else.