"Cool” is the operative aesthetic driving Bullet Train, David Leitch’s adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 comedic novel. Whether it’s the noir lighting of Tokyo, where a character recreates the charismatic strut of John Travolta and Stayin’ Alive, or the hyper-real graphics and set design (set aboard a speeding bullet train, natch), a grasp of “cool” is essential to enjoying the glossy film.
Leitch knows that there’s a universe in which Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s non-linear hitman film stuffed with pop cultural references and allusions to fate and spiritual belief and honor, does actually exist, and he chooses to run along the tracks of that universe.
First, you’ve got two assassins facing one another across a table that looks a little like a diner booth, discussing, well, Thomas the Tank Engine and which one of them has the cooler code name — Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) or Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
One is white and has longish hair in back and the other is black with a face fringed by facial hair.
So far, so Pulp Fiction.
But that doesn’t mean Bullet Train is just “Tarantino on a Japanese Train.” It’s much more than that. In fact, those expecting a simple action thriller about, I don’t know, a heist or a stolen train or something, will have their spirits lifted a bit that the unbridled energy of Pulp Fiction has resurfaced here, albeit in altered chromosomal form by stuntman-turned-director Leitch, who is no stranger to kinetic martial arts-and-guns combo specials (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2). At times the “let’s go back a bit” voiceovers and bright graphic insertions are a little bit Deadpool, but they also live in Tarantino’s expository universe, the one fully explored in Kill Bill 1 and 2, in which every plot development requires another back story about another set of characters.
Pitt is no dope. He’s always managed to align himself with the sleekest productions and franchises, placing himself at the center of the zeitgeist.
Mercifully, in Bullet Train, all of these characters do eventually converge, not only into a coherent story, but onboard a speeding train.
Brad Pitt plays Ladybug, a seasoned assassin who nonetheless curses his own bad luck because certain unhappy events always seem to attend his hit jobs (kind of like the way Jules and Vincent have to clean up Marvin’s brains from the backseat after their car hits a bump in the road). Is it fate? Destiny? Karma? Ladybug (aspirationally dubbed by his unseen handler after the lucky insect) doesn’t know. His job is to snatch an aluminum case (Pulp Fiction again, and Hitchcock’s MacGuffin) off a train in Tokyo and get out of there.
It all gets complicated, with a posse of competing assassins working the same speeding locale, and all the back stories pile up like luggage on a crowded train rack, but it’s somehow rescued by style and a witty script. Netflix “It” girl Joey King (The Kissing Booth) does a sleek turn as a very capable and psychopathic liar, Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (aka rapper Bad Bunny) turns up with a menacing glare as The Wolf, Andrew Koji, and Hiroyuki Sanada play father-son assassins, and Michael Shannon stumbles in many stops later in Kyoto, but it’s really the growth journey of Pitt that pulls us along.
Despite his penchant for playing clueless characters (in films like the Coens’ Burn After Reading), or his personal foibles (as outlined in the long-running Brangelina teleseryes), Pitt is no dope. He’s always managed to align himself with the sleekest productions and franchises, placing himself at the center of the zeitgeist, whether it’s Fight Club or techno-thrillers set in Las Vegas casinos (the Ocean’s mega-franchise), or playing lonely existential astronauts (Ad Astra), or a peripheral but also quite central character in the last Tarantino film (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), incidentally winning himself an Oscar in the process.
It’s almost as if this avatar of cool has a gift for self-consciously positioning his fame (akin to the gift of Tom Cruise, whom Pitt was often pitted against in Hollywood press back in the day) and inserting himself into the current moment (just as Cruise once again managed to do with Top Gun: Maverick). Either that, or Pitt just has a good nose for really cool projects.
There was some controversy over casting Pitt and other non-Asian actors in a Japan-based adaptation. But actually, he’s fine as a somewhat wide-eyed assassin working through his “issues” whilst talking to his unseen handler throughout the film and showing off martial arts skills. He’s in high comic mode throughout, playing a semi-enlightened guy seeking nirvana. It works not only because he’s an American, with all this self-assessing patter going on, and that he’s new to Tokyo and its fanciful toilets, but because he’s Brad Pitt — the new, therapeutic Brad, who bangs on about his personal growth in NYT interviews — going through all of this. The meta of it all tilts the source novel into Hollywood dimensions. You’ve just either gotta take the ride, or get off at the next station.
As a comic tandem, Henry and Taylor-Johnson do some great work here, just drawing the threads of this moral universe into view, allowing us to explore its ramifications — all of it unfolding aboard an unusual bullet train in which Japanese passengers pay little attention to knife fights and blood spatter going on every five minutes in their midst.
Does it help to see it all on a big screen, as we did at IMAX in SM Megamall (before much of the world got to see it, thanks to RX931 and Columbia)? Perhaps. Things have a tendency to become less urgent when they’re viewed on, tiny tablet screens instead of large, eye-popping ones. (I think Marshall McLuhan was onto something in calling television a “cool” medium; meaning that it tamped down our emotional involvement, not that it was somehow “cooler.”) Cool is, in essence, a dead-ma reaction to whatever is placed in front of you. But really, Bullet Train is not seeking a cool reaction; it wants you to get excited about the possibilities of movies again, and like another frenetically inventive film this year, Everything Everywhere All at Once, it nearly succeeds in world-building something almost as novel and new and — yes — as cool as Pulp Fiction.