It’s been a rough summer and action movies have been hard to come by to say the least. In terms of blockbusters, The Gray Man fumbled the ball epically and even though Top Gun Maverick was a blessing, it was still a graveyard out there and even though there have been some shining stars in the indie action department, fans still have been left wanting more. COVID has certainly changed the dynamic and studios are more hesitant to pull the trigger on projects (case in point: Warner Bros.) than ever before and this is unfortunately the future we have to look forward to.
With the release of David Leitch’s Bullet Train this weekend, we as an audience are reminded of a time when action movies were fun, violent, over the top and unapologetic in their execution. Leitch is part of a small group of filmmakers who know what that feeling was like back in the day when action movies ruled the cinema. Comic book films, even though I enjoy them, have definitely hampered the more traditional action spectacle but now hopefully this movie will be a success and it will release a salvo of these types of films that we all know and love. Leitch comes from the stuntman world and with Chad Stahelski, he rejuvenated the genre with a little film called John Wick. Since then, Leitch has gone on to bigger things like Deadpool 2 and Hobbs and Shaw and even though there have been mixed results with his later releases, there’s no denying that he knows how to shoot action.
With Bullet Train, Leitch has invented a world with characters who are not black and white that maneuver in a different kind of world and operate on their own set of morals and agendas. The characters in Bullet Train are fresh, funny and downright deadly but at the same time, with the violence on hand, it gives the audience a wink and a nudge while the brutality ensues throughout the running time.
The plot is more complex than you would expect and as to not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, I will give you the basics to help make a decision on whether or not to see it. Brad Pitt leads this neurotic and sultry blend of assassins as he stars as Ladybug, a name that his mysterious handler played by an off-screen Sandra Bullock gave him. See ladybugs are lucky but he is not by any stretch of the imagination so it’s more of a sarcastic reason as to why she did it. Ladybug has been fried as of late and while he got out of the game for a little, he is now rejuvenated and ready to go back to work.
Ladybug’s first assignment is a simple task as he is to board a Japanese bullet train and retrieve a briefcase with a lot of money in it and get off at the next stop to deliver said case. Whose case is it? Well, we eventually find out that it belongs to a curious hitman duo named Tangerine and Lemon played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Bryan Tyree Henry respectively. They have been tasked with rescuing a ruthless criminal mastermind’s son from the clutches of some other evil doers and also bring back the ransom money that was supposed to go towards getting said son back. This criminal leader is known only as White Death and he’s someone not to mess with. As you can see, chaos ensues when Tangerine and Lemon discover what is going on with Ladybug and add in more quirky assassins like Joey King’s Prince, Zazie Beetz’s Hornet and Bad Bunny as Wolf who all have their reasons for being there, the blood flows and bones are broken on our way to an even crazier finale that includes expert fight choreography and even more killers.
Watching this type of movie and experiencing all the twists and turns and connections of characters is half the fun and Leitch throws everything including the kitchen sink at the audience because he knows that we can take it. This action film is glorious as it contains intense violence and foul language that we used to get in Hollywood blockbusters and the only thing missing was the gratuitous nudity. Leitch, like I’ve said, is one filmmaker that gets action and delivers it in a way that is satisfying.
The characters are also worthy of a film like this as there are no wasted roles here. Everyone shines in their onscreen time and the movie rises above the norm because of all the players. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is having fun chewing up the scenery and even though Pitt was stellar in the lead, I felt that the winning ensemble piece of Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine and Henry’s Lemon stole the show. That’s not to say that everyone else involved doesn’t but I just really got behind their chemistry with each other and I would love to see prequels with these two hamming it up with the dialogue and wasting bad guys with a twinkle in their eye. All involved just click and I was actually bummed when some of them met unfortunate fates. One such individual in particular, I was sad to see go as I would have loved to see them again if a sequel was warranted.
Pitt and Bullock also work well together, and I loved how Bullock’s character was just a voice on the phone as it gave the relationship a different kind of flavor. She is so good here that I could have sworn that she was standing right next to Pitt the whole time. No worries though, as we do see here in the finale. There are also a few other cameos that are fun, but I won’t ruin for all of you.
Warrior’s Andrew Koji and Mortal Kombat‘s Hiroyuki Sanada also deliver in their performances and I, again, won’t spoil anything but their character arcs are worth the price of admission alone. I must admit that I thought Koji was going to be a different kind of person here, but I was surprised at who he actually turned out to be. The only downside here is that Koji is criminally underused when it comes to the fighting so fans, like me, will leave the theater wanting to go turn on Warrior when they get home to remind themselves of how truly awesome the man is when it comes to kicking ass. No worries with Sanada, however, as the man gets ample opportunity to shine in both the dramatic and adrenaline moments of the movie.
Now, of course, this is a David Leitch led 87Eleven affair, so the action set pieces are also stars of the show. After the disappointed that is The Gray Man (yes, I didn’t like it that much, get over it), Bullet Train is a speedy breath of fresh air, and the pacing moves just as fast as the train as we have a veritable battle royale from start to finish. The action gives a shine to the Hong Kong style of fisticuffs that Jackie Chan delivered back in the day as it is fierce, barbaric and darkly funny all at the same time. Now, I will say that it never reaches those lofty heights of the Chan Man back in his prime, but it really does pack a high-octane punch. Leitch uses the train as his blood-soaked battleground for these wayward warriors and he uses the environment and props to their fullest in bringing us a really satisfying juggernaut of one furiously choregraphed altercation after another. I couldn’t help but smile while I was thinking that this is how action should be. The violence is evident throughout, but I felt it was more of the comic book style in its execution, but it was still glorious to see all the red stuff flow in a bigger budgeted picture.
The one drawback to Bullet Train is that the bombastic finale, while it is fun to watch, delves into CGI territory as the train is thrown out of control. I would have preferred a more subtle approach with just low key altercations with guns and swords. This didn’t ruin the movie for me, but I can’t help but wonder why they think we need all these theatrics when it comes to blockbuster action. I would have preferred a more stunt heavy ending, but we still get glimpses of that while all the computer-generated chaos is ensuing. Make no mistake though as this still opens a can of whoop ass but I’ll never understand why they think we want to see all of this madness in a blockbuster action movie. You don’t need all the bells and whistles when you have well shot, well executed fights crafted by those who know how to do it and these will always be more exciting for me then over the top theatrics.
All in all, Bullet Train is a saving grace for a summer movie season that is still trying to get over the effects of COVID. Brad Pitt and crew go all in from beginning to end with a slew of characters that are memorable, fun and gleefully unapologetic just like we used to get in the 80’s and 90’s. Aside from the overuse of CGI, especially in the climax, the action is top tier with fantastic stunt work and choreography that almost rivals what we got in Hong Kong’s glory days of action. The plot is a winner as well as Leitch interconnects all this madness that reveals its mystery before the credits roll and adults finally have a film that they can go to that isn’t geared towards everyone. It’s time we take back our action movies and Bullet Train is a right step in the blood-soaked direction. It’s a politically incorrect jolt to the genre that hopefully will be a much-deserved return to form for movies like this in the future.