Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s always fun to report that a movie is much better than the novel, if the underlying novel isn’t very good. That’s exactly where I landed on the novel Bullet Train, the English translation of Kotara Isaka’s Japanese novel Maria Beetle. Before you go out and read the novel the movie Bullet Train is based on, check out my review here at borg from last year. Perhaps the English edition is a poor translation of Kotaro Isaka’s novel Maria Beetle, but I’m thinking it’s just simply a dry novel with a good title. Either way, for a title like Bullet Train, it was lacking in many ways that director David Leitch repairs expertly. Leitch directed Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw, and some of John Wick, and Bullet Train is a punch-in-the-face, exploded head, sliced-up body action flick that is a worthy successor to all the above. Bookmark this for later if you don’t want in on the details that follow.
The movie adaptation stars Brad Pitt and it really is his movie. Screenwriter Zac Olkewicz (Fear Street 1978) did a yeoman’s effort re-writing characters and plot threads from the novel into something coherent and fun. Lost are those hollow attempts at creating some kind of social statement of the Snowpiercer variety. Happily, ecstatically, this movie has none of that. Olkewicz introduces some philosophy in the themes of fate and luck, however, that are superb for Pitt and an elder Japanese father in the story to lean into.
The novel and the movie are at their core modern versions of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Like Christie’s story, everyone is a murderer–viewers get that upfront–as they are all hitmen by trade and by reputation. But this is Christie meets The Night Comes for Us without Iko Uwais, and it’s Who Killed Whom and Why? with Pitt as the “atomic blonde” instead of merely a Whodunnit. Its main glaring problem is not enough actors like Uwais–just as Edge of Tomorrow (renamed Live. Die. Repeat.) was a Japanese novel (called All You Need is Kill and reviewed here) that swapped in white Western actors for the movie version, Bullet Train could have filled more of the lead roles with native Asian characters, especially for its “Prince” and the head mob boss villain.
Yes, the story is most comparable to Leitch’s Atomic Blonde in violence and stylish execution. Colors pop in every scene. American pop music is covered by other bands or translated into Japanese, adding a cool effect to several scenes. Like Leitch’s John Wick and Deadpool 2 the kills are all quick and without hesitation. Sword slices are frequent, as are gunshots, snakebites, bleeding out the eyes, and much more. Actors return from Deitch’s Deadpool 2–recall even Pitt had a brief scene there. Ryan Reynolds gets the cameo here, and Zazie Beetz is an assassin mercenary.
From two of our favorite Asian action films of 2021, Andrew Koji (Storm Shadow from Snake Eyes) co-stars as Kimura, a character whose role was much bigger in the novel. His son was ransomed to blackmail Kimura to assassinate a mob boss called the White Death. His father is watching from afar, but eventually enters the picture (played by the great Hiroyuki Sanada, who is brilliant is everything he touches, including recently 2021’s Mortal Kombat and Army of the Dead). The movie could have amped up their roles, but it instead opts to dig into the relationship of the Twins–a pair of hitmen going by Tangerine and Lemon. Tangerine is played by The King’s Man and Kickass white actor and the second best Marvel Quicksilver actor, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Taylor-Johnson is rumored to be in the running for the next James Bond, and his role here seems custom designed as an audition reel for that part. Lemon is played by black actor Brian Tyree Henry (Hotel Artemis, Atlanta), who is almost not recognizable with this strange hair. Why they are “twins” is explained along the way.
Lemon brings another major component over from the novel–his character’s fixation with Thomas the Tank Engine cartoons. This is an aspect that is infuriatingly bizarre in the novel, but it actually works in the movie. Lemon uses the trains in the cartoon to analogize… everything. The set-up by Lemon is particularly well done to pass the identity of a murderer from one person to another. The Twins are a bit of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, but they are also something more grounded. A clever tactic Leitch uses is following a water bottle to illustrate one of the film’s themes, and Lemon plays a part in that.
The two best cameos find Sandra Bullock as the voice of Pitt’s handler, and she also appears at the end of the movie. Even better may be the humorous inclusion of Channing Tatum as a random rider on the train. Somehow he always adds extra energy to every movie he appears in, even briefly. And he’s very funny here, briefly. Young actress Joey King plays another hitman, and Michael Shannon gets a good surprise role. Heroes star Masi Oka gets a bit part as well, as does The Fast Saga’s Benito Ocasio.
Pitt is in the main role as Ladybug, a hitman who doesn’t like guns and his lifestyle has caused him to seek therapy, and he thinks he is spectacularly unlucky. He is on the speeding “bullet train” to acquire a briefcase for his handler. At the same time the Twins are on the train to acquire the briefcase and the son of the big bad mob boss. They cross paths and a dark, yet still humorous, brand of hijinks ensues. There’s nothing deep here, and that’s a good thing. Too many flashbacks? Sure. More style than substance? Yep. The only thing that matters, and the only thing viewers will want to know is who makes it off the train alive.
The novel lacked wit, cleverness, twists and turns, and humor, which fortunately are in ample supply in the movie. It finds its place among the small genre of action movies set on a train, including The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Lady Vanishes, Von Ryan’s Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Trading Places, Source Code, Unstoppable, The Commuter, and the best of them all, Silver Streak.
Bullet Train arrived in theaters July 15, 2022, but is now streaming on Netflix. A great cast, good writing, and in-your-face action. Don’t miss it!