Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a criminal in Japan who's on his first job back with renewed optimism, despite his limitless bad luck. Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are two chatterbox assassins who have been hired to bring back the son (Logan Lerman) of a vicious criminal lord (Michael Shannon). Prince (Joey King) is a deranged killer with a plan of her own. All of these stories intertwine on a bullet train headed for Kyoto...
As soon as it pulls away from the station, you get the sense that 'Bullet Train' is a movie that you've seen before. It's not just its cast is overflowing with familiar faces, or that Japan is one of those places that's presented exactly the same in every American movie. It's more that the feel and vibe of it is from the early aughts. You could easily picture this movie in a DVD case sitting on the shelf of your local XtraVision (RIP), rented on a whim and providing a decent enough experience that will be forgotten as soon as it's returned.
'Bullet Train' could have easily been directed by Guy Ritchie post-'Snatch' / pre-'Swept Away', or by some journeyman director who was hired on the proviso that they ape Quentin Tarantino as closely as possible. Instead, the duty fell to David Leitch - who's become the in-demand action director since 'John Wick'. For every 'Atomic Blonde', there's been a 'Hobbs & Shaw'. Not necessarily terrible, but just nowhere near close to the promise and potential that his name seems to suggest. 'Bullet Train', for all of its glamourous cast and seemingly exotic setting, is not all that unique or special.
What made 'John Wick' so special is how it staged action in a way that let you see everything and gave it all equal footing with the story. There were no camera tricks, no fast cuts or edits to place in the stuntperson and the special effects were kept to a tasteful minimum. David Leitch's work post-'John Wick', however, has been steadily moving in the opposite direction and 'Bullet Train' is an example of this. The action isn't nearly as polished and slick as it could be, and the increasingly ridiculous action fails to raise the stakes in a believable way. All of the guts and blood are there, but there's no heart beneath any of it.
Brad Pitt can play the bumbling action hero, sure, but it's a suit that doesn't fit him nearly as well as he'd like to think. On the other hand, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry do make an enjoyable comedic duo, though some of the dialogue between feels far too forced and written for kicks than anything else. Joey King plays a demented serial killer with frightening ease, and the likes of Bad Bunny, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, and Logan Lerman are all effectively working with extended cameos, to say nothing of the actual cameos that the movie has in spades.
All in all, 'Bullet Train' rattles along straight enough track, powered by mayhem and cliches, but arrives at the terminus about two decades too late.