I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Bullet Train, and may I just say that it was everything that I had hoped it was going to be. Whenever I hear about a bidding war on a project based on another project that has yet to release at the time of said bidding project, my interest was piqued. For months, Bullet Train was one of those films that was talked up online in various circles. The basic logline was simple, interesting, really – a group of assassins, hitmen, and criminals are on a bullet train in Japan, and from there, it’s an all-out war to kill one another. Every so often, a concept comes around where there isn’t much more needed in order to build anticipation. So, when the cast was trickled out – Brad Pitt as Ladybug leads the film as our perennial unlucky hero (granted, his luck seems just fine to me) – I knew it was going to be a massive action film. Whether it had depth was immaterial at that point, though you can always hope. In the end, there was massive depth to this film. In those quiet, character-driven moments between the leads beating the crap out of each other was an emotional throughline centered on fate.
Ladybug is tasked with retrieving a briefcase – a simple smash and grab, his specialty, really – and is filling in for a coworker named Carver (played smashingly by a surprise cameo that I truly hoped was coming from the moment I sat down in a joke tied to Brad Pitt’s frame-long cameo in Deadpool 2). Is the briefcase a McGuffin? Quite possibly, though, unlike many examples, we know precisely what is in it – ten million in ransom money, which was meant to be paid for the White Death’s son (the former is played by Michael Shannon, the latter by Logan Lerman). Tangerine and Lemon (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, the latter of whom considers himself a good judge of character and uses Thomas the Train stickers to help drive the point home), have been tasked with bringing the Son (Lerman) and the ransom back to his father. One problem – within five minutes of being introduced, he’s dead, and the briefcase has been stolen by our plucky hero Ladybug. The thing is, there’s a lot more going on.
Several characters prominently featured in the trailer – such as Zazie Beetz’s Hornet and Bad Bunny’s Wolf – are not properly introduced well into the movie, their storylines being explained through helpful flashbacks. So, it became a waiting game on when they would show up and what they would do after those initial introductions. Other characters, such as Joey King’s Prince, are introduced shortly after the train takes off from its first stop toward Kyoto. She has a vendetta against the White Death and plans on using those on the train to her advantage in order to kill him. Together, though, they provide capable obstacles between Ladybug and his goal of having a simple, easy-going mission – not to mention life. As he has recently started listening more to his therapist, he’s trying to practice forgiveness – if only his therapist knew what he really did for a living.
This places Yuichi Kimura (powerfully performed by Andrew Koji) in a difficult spot, as he has been lured onto the train by the person who claims to have pushed his son off of the roof. Under threat, because he works for the White Death, his storyline is tied directly to the heart of Bullet Train. Its backstory, its current story, and its end are all integral to his family, specifically the Elder (played by Hiroyuki Sanada, fresh from his roles in Mortal Kombat and Army of the Dead). The White Death, while only appearing sporadically during the first two-thirds of the film and always masked (I just saw Knives Out, I knew him instantly) his overthrow of a criminal overlord in Japan in the past has led to his power in the present. It’s also why half of the cast is afraid of him, and the other half seems to want to kill him.
The relationship between the Elder and Kimura is fraught with the tension surrounding the injury to Wataru (grandson and son respectively, and played by Kevin Akiyoshi Ching). What family means, and how it is supposed to act, is the harnessing of that tension between the two men, and ultimately what drives Kimura to board the train in the first place – perhaps to prove that he can be there when he is needed. Fate, though, stands supreme. Everybody is where they need to be, when they are needed. Joey King is prominent throughout the film, ping-ponging between an act of utter innocence and a true visage of a cunning, arrogant young woman wanting to prove herself. She can read a room, but her reasons for what she does aren’t entirely clear until further into the movie. Zazie Beetz, meanwhile, is in a similar position to Bad Bunny – her character acts as a prominent obstacle to Ladybug’s success, and she is clearly having a great time doing so.
During the trailer’s initial debut, I spotted a familiar face – Yoshi Sudarso – who many of you should know as the Blue Ranger from Dino Charge, but also from Easy A because that film is a gem. I was worried that he would be playing a background character, but his major supporting role throughout critical portions of Bullet Train continues to prove that he is a powerhouse of an actor, capable of extreme emotional roles. Some other familiar faces who popped up throughout the film, giving bits of humor and levity, is Masi Oka as the train’s conductor, who continually provides an obstacle to Ladybug and his attempts at keeping out of the line of sight of the far deadlier assassins, and Karen Fukuhara as the “Concession Girl,” who centers as an interruption to one of the most hilarious fights on the train. Sandra Bullock, replacing Lady Gaga, who had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts with the intense shooting schedule for House of Gucci, plays a predominantly voice-only role as Ladybug’s handler – though when she appears, she appears.
Flashy fight scenes, life-or-death decisions, manipulation, and emotional abuse are the connective tissue for Bullet Train. Portions of the story are told out of order, and this is always used for dramatic effect. When the Wolf (Bad Bunny) is first introduced blocking Ladybug’s path, his reasons for being there are not clear, but about ten minutes later, we are given a quick recap of his depressing back story, leading up to the moment he crosses paths with Ladybug to the chilling conclusion of their fight. Repeat viewings will certainly make all of the little hidden details stand out more, such as the presence of characters in scenes that were not explored until much later. Bullet Train doesn’t waste time getting into the action, but it does take its time to unfold the mystery that connects all of the characters – because there had to be a mystery. How else would so many murderous individuals end up in the same place at the same time?
Along with Carver’s surprise actor, there was another guy (Channing Tatum) who showed up for a handful of scenes that probably only amount to about one minute of screen time. But hell, if it wasn’t a memorable minute. It also complements Brad Pitt’s memorable extended cameo in Channing Tatum and Sandra Bullock’s film from earlier in the year, the exceptionally hilarious The Lost City, my review for which goes live on Friday!