Wending his way along a speeding Japanese bullet train, Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is having a bad day. An assassin who refuses to carry a gun and speaks in platitudes half-remembered from his therapy sessions, he’s the antithesis of the suave action hero. Aesthetically stuck in the 90s with a bucket hat and a penchant for saying “whack”, he sets a comedic tone for a film in which nods to other action, horror and gangster movies pile up higher than the body count.
Alongside Pitt’s camp performance, there’s much to like about Bullet Train, a film whose sheer silliness makes for some great escapism. There are well-choreographed fight sequences that take place in the gaps between carriage chairs, and humorous interactions with nonplussed passengers. The space is beautifully designed and lit; sumptuous red, gold and green hues in the bar give way to candyfloss pinks and an eerie neon glow in the anime carriage.
The over-reliance on generic tropes, however, becomes tiring. Intertextual references abound – think Tarantino, TV advertising, Bad Boys (1995), Source Code (2011), Get Out (2017), music videos – and there are contrived philosophical discussions about the original 1940s Thomas the Tank Engine book. But Bullet Train has nothing new to say about the things it’s referencing, and so the result is surface-level pastiche repackaged with a hyper-pop soundtrack. That it’s targeting online audiences is clear: with an eye on its own virality, it switches between whiplash edits and slow motion in scenes that can be pasted directly to social media.
In keeping with the Marvel-meets-Tarantino aesthetic, ultra-violence is shrugged off and issues of identity are subject to knowing winks. Ladybug chastises himself for “mansplaining”, while Black assassin Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) jokes about the white guys falling for “white girl tears”. Gender-flipping the source novel’s Prince (Joey King), and introducing a Black woman (The Hornet, played by Zazie Beetz) to up the cast’s diversity, the film pays just enough attention to representation to avoid the worst criticism. Yet while Henry steals every scene, it’s a white man that ends up walking off into the sunset in an originally Japanese story.
There’s something of Murder on the Orient Express (1974), or Snowpiercer (2013), about Bullet Train’s smart decision to keep everyone confined to train carriages for the film’s first two thirds. But in its final bombastic act it switches modes – to the film’s detriment, with chaotic set-pieces and poor CGI. It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t trust the spatial and dramatic tensions provided by the train journey, and opted instead for seen-it-all-before spectacle.