It’s astonishing how good a bad movie can make Brad Pitt look. Take “Bullet Train,” in which a stiff, overcooked cast of characters serves as the backdrop for the doughy Pitt. Doughy, as in filling space as if his pretty-boy charm and Americana ease are viscous.
It’s one of the tenets of his star power: Look at how he hopped around the film’s premiere in a skirt — a look that, as many on the internet pointed out, recalled Harry Styles’ controversial Vogue cover. Pitt pulled it off with an air of cool that Styles has trouble accessing. Styles walks the runway under an assumed heft of altruism. Pitt was just playing, not laying claim.
Pitt is capable of more, but having fun has long been the core of his brand. It was given an Evian sheen in “Thelma & Louise.” Quentin Tarantino sullied it with cans of dog food and splatters of blood in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” Both films understood Pitt in relation to his proximity to charm and awe, the one thing the creators of “Bullet Train” really seem to have grasped.
The film takes place on a bullet train making its way from Tokyo to Kyoto, and the blunt wordplay of the title should be taken as nothing more than an indication that the film will be about bullets and other such dangerous items — including five assassins and a poisonous snake stolen from a zoo — colliding on a train. There is no aplomb here, not even from Pitt. Given the benign code-name Ladybug, he acts as our guide through a tangle of secrets and relationships between the various assassins and the snake, all of whom are on the train because of a briefcase containing some grand sum of cash.
Bullets fly, but the film goes nowhere. In many ways, its stasis comes down to its narrative structure, which takes every opportunity for flashbacks and so cuts its progression into pieces that lack momentum. Pitt spends the film dipping and dodging, punching and kicking with an apologetic wince — he has been advised by his spiritual advisor to avoid taking lives, he explains to the smooth-talking voice in his ear (Sandra Bullock).
In between, director David Leitch takes breaks to divulge the assassins’ histories. There’s Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), brother-assassins who are the first tell to how lifeless the action in “Bullet Train” will be. Then, there’s Kimura (Andrew Koji), who hops aboard to take revenge against the innocuous-looking white girl Prince (Joey King), who pushed Kimura’s son off a roof. Wrap it up with Zazie Beetz’s Hornet (she stings) and the hot-headed Wolf (Bad Bunny), who’s hunting Ladybug because of a venomous wedding affair, and you’ve got a suitably banal car crash.
Leitch, an uncredited co-director of “John Wick,” has a taste for fast-paced action, but his execution in “Bullet Train” leaves the impression of a mashup. His film suggests the hair-brained wallop of a Guy Ritchie film and the spurting gore of Tarantino. When men start crawling across the top of the train, visions of Tom Cruise may flash through your head. The references are surface level at best; the sense of humor is further given over to the male ego. It should be noted, Ryan Reynolds makes a cameo.
More significantly, Leitch has no inclination for the drama that fed John Wick’s most violent forays. The only nod to drama is the murder of Kimura’s son, and the rest of the film marches on as an ode to plain violence. Not even Pitt’s charm can shine through the trainwreck.