“Atomic Blonde” and “John Wick” director David Leitch has turned his trained eye to the action flick “Bullet Train,” a speedy spectacle that pays homage to the early films of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie.
Set in Japan but predominantly shot inside a Hollywood studio, the movie – based on a Kotaro Isaka novel – gets significant help from CGI enhancements.
Brad Pitt, for whom Leitch served as stunt double in “Fight Club,” stars as a trained assassin dubbed Ladybug, a codename that represents good luck – which his handler (Sandra Bullock) explains via earpiece before he boards the Shinkansen.
Our hero’s seemingly simple task: retrieve a briefcase full of money.
As the train rolls through the Land of the Rising Sun, we’re introduced to a menagerie of hired hands: Two brothers named after fruits (amusing Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson); The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny); an out-of-place female “prince” (Joey King); a problematic heir (Logan Lerman) to the Russian kingpin White Death (a respected actor who I purposely won’t name); and a trio of key figures (Zazie Beetz, Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder and Andrew Koji) who enter the fray early and often.
That band of murderous misfits appear to have impunity – White Death bought out every seat on this railed vehicle – since the only trace of security personnel is a ticket collector.
The outrageous story’s premise, dubious when it left the station, ultimately proves unsustainable. One X factor working against “Bullet Train” is that its omnipresent trailer revealed the funniest segments, such as the Japanese rendition of “Stayin’ Alive” as Ladybug strolls around town.
There’s a subplot involving a comatose grandson employed to pull our heartstrings, to no avail. Flashbacks shuffled into the narrative add a sliver of insight but don’t arouse interest.
Approximately midway through, we sense Leitch’s desperation, as the first of many big-name actors are trotted out. In fact, the story’s engine is fueled by star-studded cameos and implausibilities that can’t be scaled with mountain boots and a grappling hook.
There’s little doubt Pitt has a flair for comedy, but the gags and quips are overworked; I’m partial to his more dramatic work in “Fury” and “Moneyball.”
A tip of the cap to U.S. native Henry, whose low-key British accent provides durable mileage during the dense dialogue and allows the actor to emerge professionally intact.
When it comes to action films, it’s par for the course to have gratuitous violence; once again, viewers are subjected to themes about greed, luck and karma – in addition to buckets of blood.
Most of “Bullet Train” is on cruise control, except during momentary pit stops when Leitch serves as a traffic cop from the director’s chair. A more apropos title would be “Insane Train.”