16 August 2022

First Impressions: Bullet Train

I was pretty jacked up on seeing this one, folks! I thought the trailer was fun, the cast has everyone who is good, and it all around felt like the kind of madcap loose action film that belongs in the mid-2000s like Smokin' Aces (2006) and Shoot 'Em Up (2007). This is in that zone, but it also focuses on mental health and zen wellness. It's also not very good. OR IS IT? That is the eternal question - spoilers here dear readers for Bullet Train (2022)!

The premise is simple enough. Brad Pitt is an assassin of some kind but he's not very good (he claims to be unlucky), and after some time off he's trying to do a simple snatch and grab assignment as sort of a warm-up. However, the case he's supposed to grab is on a bullet train headed from Tokyo to Kyoto and also full of the baddest assassins in the world!

If the premise and world-building feels a little John Wick (2014)-y, that might be because this shares a director in David Leitch who also directed Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018), and Hobbs & Shaw (2019), which is in fact an insane three years for the quality of action in all of those films. I think Leitch might be coasting a little too much here though - to be quite honest, my major gripe is how action-less this film is.

We get spurts here and there. Most notably with a spike in creativity and energy towards the end. But much of this film feels lifeless despite desperately trying. We get thorough backgrounds for every character but our main one, and while Pitt exhibits charisma rarely seen and proves again and again why he's one of our last remaining real movie stars. He's doing hardcore Brad Pitt stuff here. He's just cool, kind of wacky, and definitely in a different movie than everyone else. All other actors are stone cold serious, especially the scant Japanese ones. Let's just get into this.

The film opens on Andrew Koji from GI Joe: Snake Eyes (2021) all sad because his son was pushed off a roof. His father, Scorpion from Mortal Kombat (2021) (Hiroyuki Sanada) is greatly disappointed. This opening is flatter than it sounds and doesn't really kick off the kind of zany, madcap action thriller we'd expect. Koji and Sanada are in an immensely serious Japanese film. Everyone else is a ham.

And let's get this out of the way right now because it's been brought up elsewhere, but I will say that it's painfully noticeable here. There is a weird dearth of actual Japanese characters in this movie set in Japan. Apparently this is a whole thing and even the book's author was okay with it (this was a book? what the hell?), but it's still very conspicuous. I get the idea of like, people from every continent converging in Tokyo, but the actual Japanese characters are sidelined until the end of the film. It's more weird that the main villain is a big Russian bro (lol Michael Shannon) who just has like, a Samurai fetish or something? Because he took over the Yakuza. It just all seems really weird. I thought we were over this.

Anyway, inside the case is a $10 million ransom for Michael Shannon's son and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are two assassins assigned to bring both the son and the money back to Michael Shannon. Brad Pitt obviously snatches the case and hilarity ensues! Again, no one knows what movie their supposed to be in. Taylor-Johnson is playing pretty broad but doesn't quite have the comic timing, although he does have the physicality. Henry is the opposite, he has some of the best lines and moments, but isn't totally convincing as an unstoppable killer assassin. I mean, these guys are both pretty dumb to be feared so much.

Bad Bunny shows up for some reason! In literally one scene then HE DIES. I said spoilers. Sorry. It just made me pissed, he gets this whole long intro, is by far the most visually interesting character, has the most defined motive and exudes charisma nearly on a Pitt level and he's axed off immediately. It's a bizarre choice. The same thing pretty much happens with Zazie Beetz, who is an assassin who kills with boomslang venom that they've been trying to find for a while (snakes on a train!), so her presence is around for a while, but same deal. She doesn't get much screentime and as soon as we see her face she's taken care of. And not even any Atlanta reunion with Brian Tyree Henry. What's the deal man.

Joey King is here and I swear this girl is so damn familiar, but she hasn't done too much. Well, okay, she's done a ton and starred as the little kid in like every 2010s movie ever made. But never a role like this. She's refreshing, a true chameleon manipulator who messes with the heads of every single other person on the train. She's ten steps ahead of everyone and a total psychopath. It's fun to watch.

I'll tell you one thing, though - I'd sure like it if modern Brad Pitt movies quit teaming up to beat up young women. I mean, why does this keep being a thing. Sure, in both movies they deserved it, but also both movies consciously created their artifices to make the women deserve it. What is going on here, man. I think we really should just add a whole section to these reviews called "Problematic Stuff." That happens in every movie.

And I don't mean to whine like a millennial but it's blatantly ignoring opportunities to be inclusive, failing to read the room, and stuck in an older mentality. Also quite frankly, just lazy writing. There are so many fridged women in this movie. Like how is a film made in 2022 still featuring primarily male characters whose motivations stem from dead wives? Like, the end features Zod vs. Scorpion fighting because they killed each other's wives. Michael Shannon's wife sets this whole thing into motion, like, women can do more than just die in order to motivate the male characters. This is like the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking. It's just played out at best and adding to problematic tropes that we are long past at worst.

Anyway, here is where I thought this movie actually gets kind of good. Yeah, I know I just said all that stuff, the motivation is problematic but the end result is actually interesting. See, there's both this subtext and open dialogue throughout the film about luck and fate and free will and possible redemption and throughout the film it all just feels coincidental. And that's fine, it's a movie, you have to have coincidences or else we literally don't have a fast-paced and interesting story. But as it turns out, nothing was really coincidental, it was all planned by Michael Shannon!

Normally I hate this kind of "Aha! I am the master of all your torment!" kind of big villain reveals, but everything is actually really motivated here. Everyone took actions that lead them to this train and it's subtle, but the reveal is quick and relatively free of clunky exposition. I do love when a films themes actually tie into what is happening on screen, and everything starts hitting towards the end. There's even a really terrible cliche when a character is hit by a bus at the end, which is totally just a quick way to end a characters' story without any attempt at growth. BUT we see that it was Tangerine as revenge! Actions tend to be motivated and it's generally satisfying. I dug it.

There are also a surprising amount of cameos. Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock show up for some reason. Why is this Lost City (2022) reunion a thing that needs to happen now? I was really thrown by the Ryan Reynolds cameo, but then I did remember that Brad Pitt showed up real quick as Vanisher in Deadpool 2. Zazie Beetz, too. Leitch I guess is starting to assemble a cadre of repertory players. No idea how The Lost City connection was a thing. Something was wrong with Sandra Bullock's face, it was either plastic surgery or airbrushed to hell. Most of the film looked pretty good, but you get the sense that the eponymous bullet train was all a nice closed, COVID-testable set and the outdoor shots are super dodgy CGI.

I did want to talk about how few bullets there actually are in this film. Towards the end, sure, but before then there are hardly any guns fired. I thought that was the whole point! Like, that's the pun, right? I just expected more. The film is fun enough, I do think it drags on a bit long. There's also this weird bit throughout where they flashback constantly to remind us of earlier references, like items or things that happened. It gets irritating and shows a total lack of trust in the audience.

I shat all over this movie, but I did generally enjoy it. I'd say it was worse than I had hoped but better than what the reviews are saying. I need to think a bit more about the cultural context and how odd this film feels in contemporary cinema. I did like how much the plot connected to the theme and its commentary on the nature of fate. And the ending fight is cool. Brad Pitt rules. I laughed a few times, especially at the snake in the toilet bit. Anyway, this will probably be on streaming or something, probably worth a Friday night mindless thing but not terribly much more.

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