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Bloody Good Script: Brad Pitt in “Bullet Train”

I would have enjoyed “Bullet Train” a whole lot more if it weren’t so outrageously violent. It’s like someone took a decent script and handed it to Tarantino—except that director David Leitch seems to want to out-Quentin Quentin. Which is too bad, because the plotting is unusually strong for what seemed like a standard actioner

I would have enjoyed “Bullet Train” a whole lot more if it weren’t so outrageously violent.

It’s like someone took a decent script and handed it to Tarantino—except that director David Leitch seems to want to out-Quentin Quentin.

Which is too bad, because the plotting is unusually strong for what seemed like a standard actioner involving speed, guns, thugs, bombs, betrayal and the usual brazen flouting of the laws of physics.

Brad Pitt stars as “Ladybug,” operative for an unspecified organization that assigns him to grab a briefcase off the titular Tokyo train. On that disarmingly simple framework, writer Zak Olkewicz—working from a Japanese novel by Kotaro Isaka— hangs a plot of labyrinthine complexity, with a dizzying array of suspicious fellow passengers, most with eccentric names.

There’s the alleged twin-brother assassins Tangerine and Lemon—one of whom is black and the other white; there’s also a haggard young father seeking the fiend who pushed his son off a roof; and then we meet a snooty schoolgirl named Prince and a Latino maniac likewise bent on revenge. Naturally, much of this involves flashbacks, and Olkewicz’s use of lettered graphics to introduce the characters (i.e., “the Elder,” “the Father”) frankly doesn’t help.
But stick with it. Olkewicz does eventually bring it all together, with several solid surprises, including one in the closing credits. “Bullet Train” is what I call a jigsaw-puzzle movie, where nothing makes much sense till the end; and this nifty conclusion is so satisfying that one wishes the rest of the movie worked better.

The trailers style it as a comedy, but many of the laughs are strained, as though something that is simply weird (like the twins, or the names) is automatically hilarious. Worse yet, because it’s billed as an action-comedy, I never expected it to be so appallingly violent; in scene after scene, the outlandish blood, gore and guts have no other value but shock and awe. Trying to foment laughter in the midst of this is not merely a losing battle; it’s downright irresponsible.

The only mitigating factor is that Ladybug, a long-term assassin who’s trying to reform, refuses to bring a gun; this then results in a mind-boggling arsenal of makeshift weapons: chopsticks, toilet paper, a refreshment cart, a walking stick, a water bottle, a sushi tray, a fire extinguisher, snake venom and a fluffy stuffed animal.

I assume the film’s comedic genre is supposed to excuse the wildly impossible stunts and escapades, which include smashing open a train windshield with fist and forehead (yeah, right) and the climactic crash at a speed that would have left everyone in pieces—rather than climbing from the wreckage to sort out what remains of the plot.

Solid cast includes Brian Tyree Henry as Lemon; Joey King as the Prince; Michael Shannon as “the White Death”; Sandra Bullock as Ladybug’s handler; and Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder. There’s also an effective cameo from Channing Tatum, and a briefer one with Ryan Reynolds.

Interestingly, Bullock, Pitt and Tatum all co-starred in this year’s earlier action-comedy “The Lost City,” which is both exciting and laugh-out-loud funny.

As for “Bullet Train”—well, that’s more Iike “barf out loud.”