Release Date: August 5th, 2022
Director: David Leitch | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 6/10
When I finally heard the news of the release of Bullet Train (after multiple delays) in 2022, it seemed that the blockbuster summer might be making a real comeback. In an increasingly franchise-riddled world, where inconsequential CGI Marvel films are providing diminishing returns, it seemed we were getting three huge Summer treats at the box office: Top Gun: Maverick (my review here), the original and thrilling Nope from Jordan Peele (review coming), and Bullet Train, all due for release between May and August. The first two didn’t disappoint, and will likely be remembered as some of the best of 2022. The latter, however, will likely embody its title: here and gone without much notice.
It’s not all bad, though – if we’ve learned anything from the last few decades of American movie-stardom, it’s that Brad Pitt can elevate mediocre and even bad films simply by his charisma and talent alone. And in many ways, Bullet Train starts out on the right track, centering Pitt’s therapized assassin Ladybug, who is looking to leave his life of violence behind in this one final “snatch and run” job in favor of peace and self-discovery. While we’ve seen this done in much more interesting ways before (see HBO’s Barry for perhaps the best exploration of such ideas), Pitt’s performance is charming enough to hop on board, at least for a few stops to see where things go. As we might expect, Ladybug’s peaceful aspirations are quickly squelched, as the train turns out to be a rogue’s gallery of world-renowned assassins, all of whom are in some way connected to Pitt’s mission: retrieving and delivering a mysterious briefcase for their respective bosses.
The performances keep this train moving in the first hour or so. The work from Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry in particular stands out: playing “twin” assassins Tangerine and Lemon, their condescending British banter matches the pace of the locomotive and carries the film in its best moments of action and dialogue. The momentum haphazardly veers off course considerably in the final third, however, when what had been a clever if not derivative mash up of John Wick and Murder on the Orient Express turns into a CGI mess that mirrors what often passes for cinematic action in our caped-and-masked monoculture of intellectual property movies. Despite the best efforts of a talented ensemble, nothing was saving the train from going off the rails, in every sense of the phrase.
To its credit, there is still a place in the cinematic landscape for stylistic, passable action films that provide a good time, lend us some laughs and thrills and intrigue, and are largely forgettable upon the closing credits. Bullet Train could be this, if nothing else. But there is something more pervasive going on here. The movie seems to be caught up in the modern malaise of film culture more consumed with “meme-able moments” and internet buzz than it is with telling a story or expanding an idea. The wealth of celebrity cameos and winking awareness of its lazy writing indicate a prioritization of cashing in on stardom and style at the sacrifice of substance and significance. As soon as the movie has an opportunity to say something about its deeper themes of fate and luck, it quickly passes over them with some quick quip or discrediting comment. It sits alongside its superhero counterparts in this regard, opting to pander to a shortened and shallow cultural attention span. It’s as if the filmmakers assume the audience doesn’t really want depth (Jordan Peele continues to prove this wrong with original his blockbusters) or doesn’t have the capacity for it; in either case, Bullet Train doesn’t really trust the viewer to be anything more than a passive spectator that requires levity at every potential moment of authentic depth. The result is a mishmash two hours that looks better than it is and quips better than it philosophizes, full of as many empty calories as the popcorn you’ll eat in your seat as you watch.