‘Bullet Train’ Speeds Through Oddball Humor With Hyperactive Violence 

There are some movies where a funny enough performance can still shine through some muddled material. Brad Pitt accomplishes such a feat in “Bullet Train,” a loud, chaotic mess of a thriller where the glue holding certain parts together stems from the actor’s comedic timing. There is a curious appeal to how you can almost ignore everything else going on and enjoy Pitt’s goofy, average Joe assassin along with the colorful images director David Leitch puts on the screen. Leitch is above all a filmmaker of aesthetic pleasures. You may not follow a single plot point and yet admire the neon sheen and rapid fire editing. But that can only sustain a movie for so long. 

The source material is a novel of the same name by Japan’s Kotaro Isaka. Much of the first half does feel like the convoluted plot of a paperback. A skeleton of a plot begins with Ladybug (Pitt) an assassin who boards a Japanese bullet train with the aim of securing a briefcase full of cash. He’s not the only killer for hire onboard. Spread out through the various passenger cars are other assassins with mysterious aims. Prince (Joey King) is also after the briefcase and getting close to another passenger, Kimura (Andrew Koji). “Twin” hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) are apparently guarding an important man’s son (Logan Lerman). Mexican gangster Wolf (Bad Bunny) is also making his way to the train on a rampage of revenge over the brutal death of his wife. As the train speeds away, all of these characters will get into bloody fights, shootouts and misunderstandings somehow connected to a vicious gangster known as White Death (Michael Shannon).

That sums up the first half of “Bullet Train” which is actually its most incoherent section. The screenplay by Zak Olkewicz is a giant Jackson Pollock painting of a splatter of influences. The setting is taken out of a Liam Neeson thriller while the dialogue is trying very hard to imitate ‘90s Quentin Tarantino, when every film student sat in front of a keyboard attempting to replicate his monologues. Silliness combines with absurd puzzles. Lemon, for example, is a big fan of “Thomas & Friends” and uses the different color trains in the franchise to make observations about people’s personalities. But it comes across more as rambling than anything colorful in the Tarantino mold. Many conversations are so rushed and garbled they become nearly incomprehensible. Half-way through the movie we’re still wondering why everyone is on this train. Leitch knows how to be funny as seen in his “Deadpool 2,” it’s just that here the movie is looking everywhere for a punchline because it lacks a defining purpose. Chart-topper Bad Bunny gets stuck playing the same clichéd Latino gangster you get in every generic action flick.

What works best alongside the Pitt performance is the look of the movie. Leitch reunites with cinematographer Jonathan Sela, with whom he worked on “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde.” The latter is the film this one is closest to in style. “Atomic Blonde” had a superior script and plot, but here Leitch returns to some of the same rich color schemes and exuberance such as introducing characters with animated title cards. Shots look like manga comic panels come to life and instead of menace the bullet train set evokes some kind of cartoon otherworld. The soundtrack is not as packed with needle drops like other Leitch movies, though we still get a few favorites like “Sukiyaki.” Pitt, who has always been at home in visually exuberant action comedies like “Snatch” or “Fight Club,” carries the material best with his quirky turn. Ladybug is an assassin for the era of the Great Resignation. He’s tired of his job and would just like to find a temple for meditating. Few modern actors have been able to pull off rugged action hero and comedic farce like Pitt. The same actor who is quiet contemplation in “The Tree of Life” is hilarious when battling a snake in a bathroom for this film.

Pitt keeps the comedy gears turning as “Bullet Train” crashes into its third act where the plot all comes together but the movie itself goes completely bonkers. The action gets hilariously morbid and insane (expect exploding heads and arteries). The final crescendo gives us the expected train derailment exploding into one huge CGI crash. Woefully underused stars like Zazie Beetz and Sandra Bullock do what amount to glorified cameos (including one final, surprise guest). What makes the third act a bit more satisfying is that it stops the meandering, convoluted tone of the beginning. “Bullet Train” becomes more entertaining when it transitions into mindless action, despite more characters being tossed in accompanied by samurai assassins. It just lacks the more simple and enjoyable structure of another hyper-stylized, adrenaline-fueled romp from earlier this year, Michael Bay’s “Ambulance.” Also set in one moving vehicle, at least the Bay movie was made with heedless popcorn passion. “Bullet Train” has a lazy plot decorated with an expensive look. It aims well with Brad Pitt and its design, yet a story we might care about gets left at the station.

Bullet Train” releases Aug. 5 in theaters nationwide.