A big-screen adaptation of a 2010 Kotaro Isaka novel, Bullet Train makes no bones about feeling familiar. With Brad Pitt headlining, director David Leitch (Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw) evokes thoughts of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, to name only two directors who have made predecessor movies.
The movie also has a clang/bang quality that recalls the work of premiere cartoonist Chuck Jones. Perhaps that reference is more apt because Bullet Train can be viewed as a 126-minute cartoon that seldom tempers its slash/dash editing with anything resembling emotion or complex character development.
Normally that would be a drawback, but it's clear from the outset that Leitch's adaptation of a Japanese hitman novel plans to say close to the surface, building interest with sight gags, physical comedy, action, and enough flippant attitude to stock a freight train.
Does it work?
Pitt plays an assassin code-named Ladybug. Shaggy-haired and possibly careless, Ladybug believes he's cursed by bad luck. He's sent on a mission by his handler, a woman who communicates with him via an earpiece as he boards a bullet train that leaves Tokyo for Kyoto.
Once on board, Ladybug encounters a stream of characters with whom he fights.
Notable among them are Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who present themselves as twins. Lemon, by the way, maintains an obsessive interest in Thomas The Tank Engine, presumably one of his childhood favorites and another example of a screenplay that spews quirkiness like a car speeding through a puddle.
Also onboard: Prince (Joey King), a vicious assassin who sheds little-girl tears on demand and generally poses as an innocent. She's called The Prince because she was supposed to carry on a male lineage. Oops.
Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio) and The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) join the battle, each with motives to kill.
A whisper of a plot blows through a story that hiccups flashbacks to shuffle the deck of time and provide background on the movie's parade of characters. The story centers on a suitcase full of money that's supposed to be used to pay ransom for the kidnapped son of the movie's major evil figure, White Death.
Best to find out who plays White Death in a theater, but know that the actor gives the movie a big lift toward the end.
The story begins when a six-year-old boy is pushed off a Tokyo roof. The boy's grandfather (Hiroyuki Sanada) blames the boy's father (Andrew Koji) for not protecting the kid. Duly chastened, Kogi's Kimora boards the bullet train with vengeance in mind.
Did I mention that at a poisonous boomslang snake gets loose on the train, adding one more reason for characters to shed blood, this time from eyes that bleed like tiny waterfalls?
Pitt totally commits to a role that makes him a kind of ringmaster for a circus that includes plenty of free-flowing plasma.
There's talk of fate, luck, destiny, and a conclusion that speeds its way over the top. I guess that makes sense, considering that we're watching a mega-cartoon.
Look, keeping movie like this on track isn't easy. I'd say Leitch gets more than half way to his destination, not a disaster but less than a triumph for a movie that seems to have big-time summer box-office ambitions.