Now arriving on Track 2: “Bullet Train.” All aboard.
Prepare for a very rough and unpleasant ride.
What we have here is a gawdawful mess. Two-plus hours of mixed-up confusion that pits Brad Pitt against a horde of vicious killers riding the rails on the superspeedy Japanese train of the title.
How vicious are these evildoers? Very.
There are grim goings-on right from the get-go as the picture opens with an extended sequence in which a hospitalized small child is in danger of being killed by a soulless murderer.
But wait. It gets worse.
Director David Leitch, working from a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz (based on a book by popular Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka) proceeds to introduce the seven principal villains via gross and graphic backstories. A wedding sequence in which the guests fall prey to a poison that has them spurting blood from every orifice as they shriek in agony is one such scene-setter. Others play out with shootings, stabbings and assorted other forms of butchery.
The taste it leaves in the mouth is beyond sour. And it’s quite at odds with the tone of the several trailers that have infested the internet prior to the picture’s opening. Those teasers promise a lighthearted albeit violent romp with Pitt playing a genial assassin code-named Ladybug. He’s very much into focusing on his personal growth, spouting such mantras as, “If you put peace out in the world, you get peace back.”
He’s tasked with grabbing a mysterious briefcase off the train by his covert handler, played by Sandra Bullock. She’s barely present in the movie, but her inclusion along with Channing Tatum in a small and wholly unnecessary part is Leitch’s sly callback to this year’s “The Lost City” in which Pitt played a minor and quickly dispatched character.
“Bullet Train” is sporadically funny, with much of the humor coming from the interactions between Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry. They’re playing two killers introduced as twins, though Ladybug has his doubts about that as Taylor-Johnson is white and Henry is Black. They’re a squabblesome pairing whose English accents are so thick as to be nearly impenetrable.
Henry’s character, named Lemon (Taylor-Johnson is named Tangerine), claims the Thomas the Tank Engine stories hold the key to categorizing every person he meets according to personality type. As explained by him, this almost makes sense. (Well, no. It really doesn’t. But it seems to work for him, and that makes it funny.)
Mostly, though, assassins with names like the White Death, the Wolf, the Hornet, the Prince (that one is a woman) and the Elder stalk the cars of the train intent on killing Ladybug and one another with knives, swords, guns and poisoned hypodermics. Leitch even throws in a deadly snake to further heighten the overall lethality. Cram in car crashes, train crashes and humongous explosions, and it adds up to overkill.
Amid all the mayhem are very few Japanese characters. And only one, played by Hiroyuki Sanada, called the Elder, is a significant presence.
A filmmaker who got his start in Hollywood as a stuntman (he doubled for Pitt on “Fight Club” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and worked his way up to directing in “Deadpool 2,” “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” and the first “John Wick,” Leitch’s emphasis on excessive and nearly nonstop stunt-filled action is hardly surprising. His lack of directorial discipline, however, is. The guy apparently couldn’t help himself, piling on the action beats until they become numbing. By the end, you’re more than ready to get off this “Bullet Train,” feeling drained and disheartened.