Bullet Train review: Deeply derivative, and that’s its appeal

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Some movies practically beg you to dig deep into their rich texts, to unpack some meaning, to walk around inside the work and explore it for yourself. And then there are movies like Bullet Train.

This is not a criticism. I enjoyed Bullet Train, which has some funny lines and clever cameos, copious blood, and Brad Pitt, who is just out here having the time of his life. But early on, the assassin Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who deeply adores Thomas the Tank Engine, complains that all entertainment today is “twists, violence, drama, no message — what are we supposed to learn?” And we know it’s a wink and a nod to us. This is exactly one of those movies, and that’s all it wants to be.

Which leaves me, out in the audience, thinking less about the movie than the fact of its existence. There’s an appetite for this kind of film. Arguably there always has been in certain pockets of the world; Bullet Train is a Japanese and American co-production, and it draws on cinematic traditions from both. (It’s based on Kōtarō Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle, published in English as Bullet Train.)

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brad Pitt fight in Bullet Train. Everyone fights in Bullet Train.
Sony Pictures

Director David Leitch got his start in stunts before moving on to directing, initially as an uncredited director on the first John Wick movie and then on Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw. Violent fights and stunts are his specialty, and he keeps getting called in to direct them not only because he knows how to make them visibly legible — something the directors of most comic book movies could stand to learn these days — but also because they’re fun to watch.

Image of a spoiler warning

The following spoils the cameos in Bullet Train!

The plot is not really the point of this movie, but in brief, it’s about a bunch of assassins (played by Henry, Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Andrew Koji, Hiroyuki Sanada, Zazie Beetz, Bad Bunny) who all find themselves on a high-speed train on Japan’s Nippon Speedline, playing hot potato with a briefcase and taking calls from the various villains who hired them. The real point of Bullet Train is all of the stars and some cameos (Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock, who I guess may have been in town from the Lost City shoot, and a very funny Michael Shannon in a significant role, and, near the end, a very brief glimpse of Ryan Reynolds). Also, a lot of blood. Plus Pitt chuckling his way through.

Bullet Train boasts a visual style that feels ripped from the 1990s, derivative of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie but not in a bad way. The tropes are like any other movie about assassins, with their various nicknames (Ladybug, The Wolf, Lemon, White Death) announced on screen in text and occasional backstory filled in mostly for comic effect. Everything from sound to color grading timing to swordfights is ratcheted up to 11 and, if you go in looking for a thrill ride, it’s pretty fun. At some point, you start to realize that it’s mostly about the crazy situations our heroes will find themselves in — and also figuring out who the heroes are. Perfectly fun, plenty of cathartic entertainment after a long week.

What’s more interesting to me than the question of good or bad is what Bullet Train, which I expect to be a pretty big hit, says about what we want from entertainment these days. By Hollywood standards, this age of reboots and sequels and nothing else, Bullet Train counts as an original screenplay. It’s not; it’s adapted from a book, and more importantly, everything in it has been seen before. Yet the familiarity of the tropes, the images, the plot beats made me think about the last time I saw a full-throttle action blockbuster with a truly original sensibility, sequel or otherwise. (I think it was Mad Max: Fury Road?)

Two men fighting.

Brad Pitt fights Bad Bunny.
Sony Pictures

I can get frustrated with the familiarity, but there’s no denying our culture craves that comfort, sometimes spiked with what passes for novelty. In the case of Bullet Train, the novelty comes mostly from celebrity cameos and the sight of on-screen blood during the fights, which is absent from most of our big-budget entertainment. (The main reason is that blood shifts a movie from PG-13 to R, and PG-13 movies make much more money than their R-rated cousins.)

Why do we crave that comfort? Well, it’s anyone’s guess. Some of it’s a carefully cultivated appetite for never being truly challenged at the movies. Some might just be from the ability, in the streaming age, to just flip back to what we know we like when something startles us or makes us uncomfortable.

And some of it, I’m guessing, is just the state of the world, which is far stranger than fiction, full of twists that lack the pleasure of fictional catharsis. If Bullet Train is a hit, this may be the cause; it’s pure escapism at its finest, with no message or lesson at its core. Glib, maybe a bit nihilistic, it’s the sort of movie that Lemon the Assassin would find annoying. But when the same kind of entertainment gets made over and over again, there’s usually a reason.

Bullet Train begins playing in theaters on August 4.

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