'Bullet Train' review: Going nowhere fast

Brad Pitt vehicle talks fast but never finds the right track.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Stop this train, I wanna get off. 

"Bullet Train" is a soul-sucking, spiritually empty ride to nowhere. With its flippant take on hyperviolence and its collection of pop culture-riffing sociopaths, it plays like Guy Ritchie digging through Quentin Tarantino's trash. Its main character is a guy who wants nothing more than to simply deboard the moving vessel of the title but can't, and sitting through this vacant would-be romp, you'll know how he feels.  

Brad Pitt in "Bullet Train."

Brad Pitt plays Ladybug, a therapy-quoting assassin with a bad luck streak. He boards the bullet train in Tokyo, assigned to carry out a vague mission that involves retrieving a briefcase for his handler. Just his luck, the train is chock-full of assassins, all loosely connected through circumstance. 

There are brothers Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a pair of British blokes, the former of whom is always going on (and on, and on, and on) about "Thomas the Tank Engine," his metaphor of choice for the world around him. (People are also always asking him "like the fruit?" when he introduces himself — like, what other kind of lemons are there?) There's Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), who seeks vengeance after his son was allegedly pushed from a building. There's also Prince (Joey King), who is disguised as an innocent school girl; the Wolf (Benito "Bad Bunny" Ocasio), who's out to avenge the murder of his wife; and a few other assorted players. 

How they all fit together is immaterial, which is fine, since their connections are tenuous at best and their characters basically boil down to their accents. "Bullet Train" is designed to be all about its slick, hip, glib attitude, where everything is a joke, and characters are forever pausing to make the joke, laugh at the joke and beat the joke to death without ever stopping to consider whether the joke was funny or worth making in the first place. Most of the time it's not, which is why "Bullet Train" comes off so undeservedly self-satisfied. 

"John Wick" director David Leitch, working from a script by Zak Olkewicz (which is based on a 2010 novel by Kōtarō Isaka), never finds the right tone, and it's clear early on that the film is off the rails. There's an expediency in storytelling in the Wolf's backstory, which unfolds as a series of dialogue-free flashes, but whenever any of its characters speak, you wish "Bullet Train" would move back to the silent car. 

Pitt, so natural and at ease with actual Tarantino dialogue in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," does his best to bring his winning charm to the role but it never rises to the surface. Everything else in the movie is working against him, most of all a story that can't find its center and a flurry of action that by the end is rendered as a CGI hellscape. Instead of being high-speed and efficient, "Bullet Train" is endlessly, ridiculously going in circles. Should have called it "People Mover." 



'Bullet Train'


Rated R: for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality

Running time: 126 minutes

In theaters