‘Bullet Train’ Features Cartoonish Violence and a Confusing Plot

‘I’ ON CULTURE

New movie High-speed train reminds me of an old Road Runner cartoon. The star continues to run as his nemesis Wile E. Coyote and all explode around him in a nihilistic frenzy. There’s a lot of weird, cartoonish violence in this movie, but if you want to develop your character, that’s not where you want to go.

Director David Leitch sets up a simple situation. A weary and worn-out agent named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is tasked by his handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock, who only shows up a few minutes late in the film) to pick up a metal briefcase on a high-speed train from Tokyo in Kyoto. Since it’s all set in Japan, a Japanese agent would almost certainly do a better job, but surprisingly there aren’t many Japanese people appearing in the film.

Ladybug is about to get out of the whole affair. He spends most of the movie quoting his therapist on the meaning of life. But the mission should be “easy-peasy”. Get on the train, find the bag and get off at the next stop. Of course, that doesn’t happen.

It seems almost every secret agent on the planet takes the train with him, and each seems to have their own agenda. The ones we see most often, besides our hero, are a British duo, twins coded as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry). And, yes, one is white and the other is black, but they are twins. And they care about each other like brothers, even though they bicker constantly. While amusing, they are also expert and vicious killers who escort the son of a high crime lord. Another killer on the train is Wolf (Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny), who wants revenge for his wife’s murder and is certain that Ladybug is to blame. Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is also on the train, which actually killed. And we have the Father (Andrew Koji), who is a puppet controlled by someone who threw his young son off a roof and now controls the boy’s fate. Her father, the great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, makes an appearance halfway through so he can philosophize with Ladybug.

There’s also someone in a weird mascot costume and a train conductor who’s just focused on whether or not Ladybug has a ticket. Meanwhile, one of the most venomous snakes in the world manages to get out of its carrying case. Eventually, even White Death (Michael Shannon), the most feared crime boss, gets on board, just before the train and history go off the rails.

Women do not seem to play a major role at all. Beetz is on screen for just over a minute. Joey King, as Prince, seems like a scared young woman but that’s clearly not the case. She provides much of the plot, even seeming one-note until the end.

The violence is cartoonish, well choreographed and often unique. People are being killed by metal suitcases, knives, poison and water bottles. And there is a very modern Japanese toilet that plays an important role. There are a few impossible stunts, but again, it’s a movie.

Pitts is fun and charismatic, just right for the role. There is no real growth, no change, but he is the main constant, the eye of the hurricane. Henry and Taylor-Johnson are much more central to the film, but are just too cartoonish for us to focus on. Koji may have become the moral center of the film, but he does too little. He’s a prototypical victim. Sanada provides at least some center as he explains much of the action and counterbalances Shannon, who provides the rest of the story. But we don’t find out what the whole movie is about until a few minutes before the end.

Still, despite an almost pointless script from Zak Olkewicz, it’s a fun ride. Following what has become a common tradition, all kinds of horrific acts are followed by brief passages of humor, as a way of giving us a brief respite. But the action keeps coming, even through the extra scene performed in the final credits.

This is a fun ride if you want mindless entertainment. Not a great movie, not really a very good one. But it will keep you hooked for its full two hours.

About Walter J. Leslie

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