By Daniel Paiz
Once upon a time, I used to pay more attention to movies based off of books. Bullet Train speedily returns me to debating whether that’s luck or fate in our newest Cypher Flicks review. There are several things that stand out to me about this film that at first glance might not work on paper. The amount of star talent in this film (Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King, Zazie Beetz, and Andrew Koji, for starters) makes it feel cramped. Each of those listed above and more (Bad Bunny, Hiroyuki Sanada, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, and Masi Oka are standouts) have a niche and perform it top-notch.
Combine this roster with a very frenetic pace that’s packed inside of a bullet train, and let things zoom along from there.
Don’t be a Diesel
Each character is well developed and pretty much shows you their motivation from the jump. Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a seasoned assassin who considers himself to always have bad luck. He is just getting back into the game by filling in for some other guy who’s sick (won’t spoil who plays Carver), and after a briefcase. Then throw in some twins, one named Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and the other Tangerine (Aaron-Taylor Johnson); these two have the briefcase and some rich kid whose dad (The White Death, won’t spoil who plays them here) wants both back. They get the briefcase from Kimura (Andrew Koji). His father, an Elder of sorts with some criminal experience (Hiroyuki Sanada), is focused on getting his son to see what fate has in store for him.
I’m going to stop here because that’s really just the first 10 minutes or so of the film. The entire film zips along consistently at this pace. There are some lulls and some quick fight scenes, but the bullet train seems to be what’s inspiring the pacing. For some viewers this can be dizzying, because while the characters are quickly developed, the overall plot is smashed into the tight confines of a shiny locomotive.
Lemon (Henry) might be my favorite character, because he bases his ability to read people off of the children’s show Thomas the Tank Engine. Each character on that show has qualities that he pulls from to attribute why people act the way they do. Despite protests from Tangerine (Johnson), this is Lemon’s moral compass. Lemon seems to believe that how people line up with his observations of train characters will determine how to deal with them. Diesel, a train engine that takes things too far, serves as a red flag when human versions pop up. Lemon often is correct in his analyses, which is wild that a kid’s show is seemingly this helpful.
One track minded characters like Prince (Joey King), The Wolf (Bad Bunny) and Hornet (Zazie Beetz) provide some villainous moments that are sorely needed with the occasional anti-hero feels from the others. It’s Deadpoolesque how murder and maiming feel somewhat blasé throughout. The quirkiness of Ladybug’s focus on self-improvement does help to dull the death, but there’s still desensitized violence all over the place.
Pacing and more might throw you off the tracks
This film feels like a short manga or anime, but it’s based off of 400+ page novel. Fitting 400 pages into 2 hours is no small task, but the pacing sometimes has brow-furrowing moments. This makes it a bit harder to root for certain characters. There are also claims of whitewashing the cast for this film.
‘Maria Beetle’, or ‘Maria Bītoru‘ is the original title of the 2010 novel in Japan. Kotaro Isaka is Japanese and the original author of the book. However, it appears Isaka has been supportive of the casting so far; that’s understandable largely because who wouldn’t want their book turned into a Hollywood film.
There have been several voices who have criticized Brad Pitt and others for not being more vocal about Japanese actors not getting lead roles. With films such as Parasite, Rich Crazy Asians, and Shang Chi (amongst others) finding success, the criticism is valid and reflects a missed opportunity by Hollywood. Koji (Kimura) and Sanada (Elder) are the only Japanese actors in fairly visible lead or supporting roles. Actors like Masi Oka (Conductor) and Karen Fukuhara (train attendant) get limited screentime and dialogue, despite both stealing the scenes each partake in.
The conundrum of deciding whether one accepts what fate offers you, or you make your own fate is something I enjoyed pondering during and after the film. Some, like the Elder (Sanada) appear to observe what fate offers them and then acts from there. Some, like the White Death (again, won’t spoil who it is) are squarely in the camp of making your own fate. Both approaches play out constantly in the film, with the ending pointing towards a draw; you conclude which one works best or came out on top.
At the end of the film, for me it became an ongoing debate of was it fate or luck for each character in this film. Prince (King) claims throughout to have good luck; this seems to primarily happen when Prince makes a plan and executes it. The only time luck might overrule their decision to make their own fate is their final declaration of being lucky backfiring.
Conversely, Ladybug (Pitt) who always claims bad luck, seems fated to narrowly survive each incident. His battle with Wolf (Bad Bunny) is due to Wolf recognizing Ladybug and then using him as a scapegoat for the Mexico job. Getting shot by Lemon in Johannesburg didn’t end him, and neither does the bite of the deadly boomslang snake (pictured above and escaped from the zoo in the film) due to unexpectedly taking boomslang antidote beforehand.
I enjoyed the close quarters fight scenes, the moments of humor scattered about, and the quick character development. Also, please find the soundtrack because these tunes set each chapter so well. The train itself as a plot vehicle is fun, although at times needs to pump the brakes a bit for a breather. Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is a humorous lead, while Andrew Koji, Bad Bunny, Joey King, and Brian Tyree Henry are all worthy of their own spinoff films. This is a fun summer flick; there’s lots to ponder, but it might not be for everyone due to the pacing and desensitized approach to violence.