Previews are a double-edged sword. I never skip them when I go to the movies, and I get annoyed with myself when I get to the theater after they have completed. Luckily, this has happened only a few times as I routinely arrive at least a half hour before start time. As somebody who goes every weekend, I do this in order to stay abreast of the coming features. The trailers always show the better parts of a film, and you can often get a sense of what to expect from a given film. You will note that I did not use definite terminology in the previous paragraph. This is because, unsurprisingly, not all movies live up to the hype their previews generate. I also tend to go to the cinema by myself. This is not necessarily by choice, though I find that I would rather not inflict my peculiarities on another. Not everyone likes to arrive early or sit through trailers. Yet, on the few occasions I have had a theater buddy in recent months, we have always had complementary levels of anticipation for Bullet Train. I bring this up only to underscore the fact that I was not alone in looking forward to seeing this film. Unfortunately, this is a case where that preview blade cut the other way, making it look far better than it is.
Speaking of trailers, Bullet Train’s would lead you to believe, not to mention the title, that the majority of the events take place on the eponymous vehicle. Instead, we begin with a young boy in a coma in a hospital room in Japan. His father, Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), is being consoled/scolded by his own father, known as “The Elder” (Hiroyuki Sanada), for letting this happen. This is where things get complicated. The next thing we see is “Ladybug” (Brad Pitt), walking through the streets of Tokyo. He is talking on the phone with his handler, Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), who gave him this nickname because she thinks he is lucky. He believes the opposite. By the way, I say “handler” because Ladybug is a contract killer. It is his perceived lack of fortune that he sees as leading to people dying far too often around him. He accepts the assignment that Maria is attempting to talk him through only because she claims it is a simple matter of picking up a briefcase on a train and getting off at the next stop. Unfortunately, there is a seeming train full of other assassins essentially there to do the same thing. The first other two we are introduced to are “Lemon” (Brian Tyree Henry) and “Tangerine” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They are two hitmen from England tasked with bringing in the son of the most feared mafia boss in Japan, known by everyone in the criminal world as “White Death” (Michael Shannon). He had supplanted the Japanese Yakuzas, and is not somebody with which to trifle. The briefcase in question is also in their possession, and it contains the ransom money that White Death evidently did not want to actually pay for his son. Because this movie is nothing but comic relief, punctuated by brief moments of intense action, an argument over Lemon’s predilection for analyzing everyone through the lens of Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends provides the distraction needed for Ladybug to snatch the luggage. The son is also killed on their watch, so that does not help their cause. While this goes on, we also see Yuichi board the train. He has discovered the identity of the person who had caused his son’s injury, the result of being pushed off a bridge. It turns out to be a deceptively older than she looks teenage girl going by “Prince” (Joey King). Before he can exact his revenge, however, she informs him that there is somebody watching her son in her employ, and if she does not check in with this person, his son will be murdered. Her plan is to use him to kill White Death. I am going to go ahead and spoil this now since it was pretty obvious the entire time: the reason Prince wants to do this is because she is White Death’s neglected daughter. Meanwhile, Ladybug is trying to get off the train with the money, but is prevented a number of times by a series of other assassins, most of which are after the money, but one wants to kill him personally. This detail is not all that important. There is also a near literal game of cat and mouse that goes on between Ladybug, Lemon, and Tangerine as to who has the case. As it turns out, the cast is in Prince’s possession, she having ferreted out where Ladybug had stashed it in his bid to evade Lemon and Tangerine. Her hope is to rig it with explosives and have Yuichi hand it to White Death. Anyway, the destination for the conveyance is Kyoto, and as this Möbius strip of a movie plays out, I was enduring the trail of death (including Tangerine) until the train arrived. It is there that finally we get to meet White Death, who is waiting at the final stop with a small cadre of henchmen. Seeing a bigger problem in White Death forges a shaky alliance between Ladybug and Lemon, despite Ladybug being accidentally responsible for Tangerine’s death. They are also joined by the Elder, who has his own score, of course, to settle with White Death. Prince’s attempt backfires on her and she is brushed aside. Later, Lemon runs her over with a tangerine truck. I guess this is supposed to be funny. Before this, Lemon gets the train moving again and crashes it into a nearby town. Amazingly, all our principal characters survive, though they are the only ones left. Prince’s rigged gun finishes off White Death, Maria shows up out of nowhere, and everyone limps away.
It does not have to be a Bullet Train necessarily, but have you ever been on a train, sitting there bored out of your mind, and getting impatient for it to arrive at your stop/its destination? That was my experience with this film. Put differently, it is three-eighths Deadpool 2 (2018), one-half comedy, one-half action, and a thousand parts repetitive. This last bit is why I liken it to sitting on a train waiting for your stop. I have done this a lot in my beloved city of Chicago. My most frequented jumping off point between downtown and where I lived was the Loyola stop. That was seventeen stops on the Red Line. I enjoyed my city as much as the next person, at any time of the day, though the drunks that inhabited at night on the weekends were always an “adventure.” Still, seven years of that made me impatient for some variety. That is how I felt about Bullet Train, and there were only about four stops (I lost count). Each time you think this is going to be the moment, and Ladybug would enter a different phase of the adventure. I get it. The title kind of gives away the theme. Yet, in between stops it was try to get the briefcase and try to get off the train, only to be stopped by something that would lead to a fight scene. Sprinkle in the jokes in between and that is about as brief as a plot synopsis of which I am capable. The humor is invariably told at an inappropriate, particularly dangerous time, and consistently diffuses any tension, hence the Deadpool reference. We have all seen action movies before, and comedies. I am not sure how this is any different.
The mode by which the majority of the comedic elements in Bullet Train is Ladybug’s utter sureness that he has bad luck. Every job he has done as an assassin has led to someone getting killed in collateral fashion, and he desires to end the violence. In fact, when he is preparing to get on the train, the locker Maria directs him to has a gun in it that he elects not to bring with him. Along the way, he also spouts a bunch of psychobabble that his therapist Barry (not pictured) has told him. Okay, this Catholic appreciates his desire to avoid violence, even though it always seems to find him. I was less thrilled with his pseudo-philosophical sayings. God cuts through all these things, and I try to leave it at that point. The bigger theme in the movie is fate. I have discussed fate from a Catholic point of view in other reviews, though I cannot remember which ones specifically at the moment. The reason why is because it is not an uncommon idea in film. Briefly, fate is tricky when it comes to Faith because while God does, in fact, have a plan for us all, we also have free will. Whether God destines us all for something in this life has been something with which theologians have been wrestling for centuries. Catholicism says that it is best that we choose to do God’s will, but that is something that is also personal between yourself and God. In the film, everyone is there because some mystical force known as fate brought them together. Since God is not keen on us murdering each other, I have difficulty seeing His hand in this story. Instead, I seem something else: plot convenience. This is not a recipe for a good film.
There were a few moments at which I lightly chuckled while watching Bullet Train. There was a lot more frustration. I wanted it to be good because the trailers looked fun. The biggest problem, as I have said, is the repetitiveness. I was also mildly annoyed with little concepts thrown in like God being female (a tired argument) and karma (a tired concept). It is also really violent and bloody. In short, there is little merit to it.