David Leitch's Bullet Train is a fast and furious ride — though its writing runs out of steam quickly.
The action-comedy, featuring a colourful cast of oddball killers led by Brad Pitt, excites with its kinetic choreographed scenes and marvellous stunts, however its grating attempts to connect with Gen Z almost send it off the rails.
Based on the 2010 Japanese novel by Kotaro Isaka, the story follows luckless hitman Ladybug (Pitt) as he boards a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto on a seemingly simple mission to retrieve a suitcase.
As it turns out, half a dozen other assassins on board have the same idea.
There are the cockney British "twins" Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); the maniacal Mexican dubbed The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny); the narcissistic high schooler Prince (Joey King); the spiky — in more ways than one — Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and chief villain White Death, a shadowy European mob boss played by Michael Shannon.
When their paths cross on the overnight journey, Bullet Train erupts in such spasms of fantastical violence an alternative film title could have easily been Massacre on the Orient Express.
This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Super-stylised violence is increasingly becoming the norm in major blockbusters and Leitch is partly responsible for that shift.
A former stunt double for Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme, his keen understanding of fluid action choreography for the big screen has elevated his directorial efforts, from John Wick (2014) and Atomic Blonde (2017) toFast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019), into entertaining spectacles.
Where the action sequences in those films were lavish in scale, it was intriguing to see if Leitch could exercise the same panache within the narrower confines of a train carriage.
Ultimately, he does a decent job of matching Bullet Train’s increasing intensity by upping the number of rapid pans, zooms, jump cuts, voice overs and pulsating rock soundtrack.
It’s not the subtlest filmmaking, but when six killers are blazing infantry loads of bullets at each other in tight spaces — and a deadly snake is slithering around the train for good measure — a soft touch is arguably not what’s needed.
That levity, instead, should have been all over the script by Zak Olkewicz.
Leaden and relentlessly unoriginal, the dialogue comes perilously close to stopping the film on its tracks.
The pub banter by Lemon and Tangerine — including an unconvincing pseudo-psychological exchange on the meaning behind children’s show Thomas the Tank Engine — is a pale imitation of hitmen Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega's thrilling exchanges in Pulp Fiction.
And the whole concept of Pitt playing a hitman trying to find inner peace through mantras such as “hurt people, hurt people” doesn’t take off as its used more as a comedic trope, rather than a way to offer some form of illuminating insight amid the blood splatter.
That being said, Pitt does his best in a role more suited to the neurotic stylings of Ryan Reynolds.
Old school watchers of the Oscar winner will find the performance mostly satisfying as it channels many of his beloved past characters.
Laydbug's blend of nervous eccentricity and killer instinct harkens the likes of Tyler Durden and Mickey O'Neil in Fight Club and Snatch respectively.
While the slacker character, responsible for Bullet Train’s biggest laughs, recalls a young Pitt, at 28, making his debut appearance as laconic drifter JD in the 1991 drama Thelma and Louise.
In interviews promoting the release, Pitt described Bullet Train as a fresh move into the action-comedy field.
While providing the thrills and his fair share of spills, let’s hope his next journey into the genre actually goes someplace new.