One might say that David Leitch, the director of the new movie “Bullet Train,” is a pioneer of the highly stylized action films hitting our screens today. Leitch, a former stunt double, previously directed “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool 2,” and served as an uncredited co-director on “John Wick.” His latest film has everything you’d expect after watching his previous entries: explosive action, bloody fight scenes, snappy dialogue and sharp cuts that, after a while, might give you a headache. To put it succinctly, “Bullet Train” is part of the recent trend of making what I would call the mature, stylish action flick. These movies are almost always rated “R” for Ruthless, with much darker themes than a Michael Bay movie. Their protagonists, usually assassins of some kind, aren’t always sympathetic, but they are definitely entertaining. So, if this sounds right up your alley, then “Bullet Train” was probably made with you in mind.
The movie follows a diverse cast of characters, all of whom gather on a bullet train racing through Japan. Each of them has different motivations and very distinct personalities, and they’re all exceptionally good at dragging other people into their problems. At the center of it all is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), an assassin who also happens to be a walking self-help book. Ladybug seems to be in the twilight of his career, spending a lot of the film talking about going to therapy and dealing with an ongoing existential crisis.
In addition to him, there’s a pair of contracts for hire called Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron-Taylor Johnson, respectively), a calculating teenager named the Prince (Joey King) and a man named Yuichi (Andrew Koji) and his father, who have the most to lose from this ordeal. Lemon and Tangerine clearly fit the classic comedic duo trope, while Yuichi and his father bring an emotional weight to a story that’s largely tongue-in-cheek.
By far the most interesting aspect of “Bullet Train” is Brad Pitt’s Ladybug. Since most action heroes or antiheroes have always been stone-faced and taciturn, seeing a male protagonist who openly talks about his anxiety and tries to improve himself is definitely a breath of fresh air. One of the most critical and revealing points in the film comes at the beginning when Ladybug has the option of taking a gun on the mission or not, and he chooses not to. He chooses not to expect violence, even if that violence is fated to occur.
You can tell that Ladybug would have been a good influence on John Wick or James Bond. Even though he just wants out of the messy situation he’s in, he tries to accept it and apply what he’s learned in therapy to his crazy circumstances. He talks easily and breezily, unlike all the brooding protagonists in action films that came before him. It’s not something you often see in these kinds of movies — a guy who’s just a guy. He’s cool because he’s Brad Pitt, but he’s also a real human being who doesn’t take himself too seriously.
And that’s where the movie loses a few points. Leitch and the writers had something pretty special with Ladybug, but they failed to take his character and what he represented seriously. The uniqueness of Pitt’s character isn’t something I’ve seen many critics mention — perhaps they’ve been distracted by the bright colors and loud explosions. Think about it: Here we have a pretty mature action movie, made for fans of “John Wick,” “Nobody” and even a few of the Nicolas Cage thrillers, and the big star driving the show talks about things men in these movies never talk about. He recognizes his flaws and knows he needs to work on himself. To throw in a buzzword we’re all using these days, Ladybug is a response to the toxic masculinity that pervades nearly all of the action films of our time.
He doesn’t shove down his feelings, he expresses them readily. And that’s important to see in a movie like this. Yet the team behind the film didn’t seem to grasp the significance and novelty of his character. As the story progressed, Ladybug became something of a joke, shafted aside to make room for a revenge plot that we’ve all seen literally a thousand times. His personal crisis and expressiveness were made to look silly when they should be more like an example. This blame in no way falls on Pitt, though — he clearly had fun with the character and embodied him well. It’s the narrative and filming choices in the latter half of the movie that let down Ladybug.
What’s more, the film’s biggest contradiction relates to this failed message. Ladybug chooses nonviolence at the beginning of the film, something that sets him apart from other action heroes. Yet it seems that his choice not to use a gun is ultimately what causes so much needless destruction at the end of the movie. It’s like they were trying to tell us that violence is wrong, but that same violence is what’s keeping us watching their movie. Violence is the entertainment. So why have Ladybug leave the gun behind, if you’re not going to continue to challenge the way violence is portrayed in nearly every action movie? Perhaps the creators behind “Bullet Train” were going for a new approach, but in the end, they stuck to all the conventions of the genre — and thus, we’re left with a conventional action flick.
Listen, conventional isn’t all bad. Even I can’t deny that both the comedy and the action in this movie were pretty entertaining. I cracked a smile a few times at the back-and-forth between Lemon and Tangerine and really enjoyed their brotherly bond. The cameos were memorable and not too over-the-top — surprisingly, Channing Tatum’s role was the most amusing. In terms of the action, Leitch’s background as a stunt double is on full display here.
Just as in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde,” the fight scenes are impeccably choreographed and the violence is convincing, even gripping. Every cut is razor-sharp and exciting, and the neon-drenched choreography is definitely easy on the eyes. So, yes, it’s a fun ride. If you’re seeking out an entertaining summer flick to keep you hooked for a couple of hours, look no further. But for anyone looking for a fresh take on traditional action storylines, “Bullet Train” will likely disappoint.