So many things went through my mind while watching “Bullet Train”: Bullet trains sound great; why don’t we have them in the United States? Will I ever get to see Mount Fuji? I wonder what flavors of Kit Kats they sell on that train?
These thoughts occurred because my brain refused to engage with this glib, terminally self-satisfied blood-and-bullets extravaganza, one that feels like it was plucked from what we might call the “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” period of American cinema, when Quentin Tarantino’s first two features emboldened far too many young filmmakers to think that they, too, could make a zippy comedy with excessive gunplay, explicit gore, pop-culture references, needle drops, and a briefcase full of cash.
Having programmed a film festival from 1995 to 1999, I was subjected to more bad “Reservoir Dogs” wannabes than the average filmgoer, which might explain why this new film turned me off early and never won me back. “Bullet Train” pretty much leaves no cliché of this subgenre unturned, from swoopy, self-conscious camera moves to a shootout scored to an innocuous hit single of the past. (“I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” gets the honors here.)
Brad Pitt — who, like pretty much every actor involved, is better than this — stars as a for-hire snatch-and-grab man codenamed Ladybug. (Oh yes, they do the cute-nickname bit here as well.) Ladybug is commissioned by his handler (the voice of Sandra Bullock) to hop on the bullet train in Tokyo, steal a particular briefcase, and then hop off at the next stop. But it can’t be that easy, or there’d be no movie.
The train happens to be host to a global rogues’ gallery of assassins, including: Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of killers incongruously known as “The Twins,” who are stewards of the briefcase and of the until-recently-kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) of infamous crime boss The White Death; The Prince (Joey King), whose schoolgirl realness belies her homicidal intentions; The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny), a Bolivian gangster looking for revenge; Kimura (Andrew Koji, “Warrior”), whose son’s life hangs in the balance; and a few more players to be revealed later.
There’s also a deadly, venomous snake aboard, but it becomes one of many details that screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (“Fear Street: Part Two – 1978”), adapting the book by Kôtarô Isaka, seems to forget about for long stretches of the film, in the same way that he writes an explanation for what happens to the other passengers but never explains the disappearance of the train’s crew.
A fast-paced violent caper about a group of attractive crooks trying out to outwit and/or out-shoot each other holds the promise of being fun and thrilling, but in the hands of director David Leitch (“Deadpool 2”), it’s an airless case. It’s clear in the first 20 minutes that this movie operates in such a vacuum of smug artificiality that nothing that transpires could possibly matter. And rather than lean into next-level snarkiness, “Bullet Train” builds to a place where, as the bodies start piling up, we’re suddenly supposed to care about at least some of these characters and their relationships to each other.
This talented cast is reduced to playing ideas of people, often with just one defining characteristic they play over and over. (Ladybug is fond of repeating self-help aphorisms from his therapist when he’s not punching people out, while Lemon categorizes every person he meets by characters from “Thomas the Tank Engine.”)
Cinematographer Jonathan Sela (“The Lost City”) provides all the loop-de-loops required — this is the kind of movie where a water bottle gets a flashback, complete with POV — and provides a TV-commercial-level sheen to all objects within the train car. What’s shown through the windows, on the other hand, registers more as VFX animation (of varying degrees of seamlessness) than as actual vistas of Japan, suggesting that the film was either shot entirely on the Sony lot in Culver City, or it might as well have been.
All “Bullet Train” had to be was high-gloss, all-star, late-summer nonsense, but instead it gives high-gloss, all-star, late-summer nonsense a bad name.
“Bullet Train” opens in US theaters August 5.