Brad Pitt is the Tom Brady of actors. That isn’t to say Pitt is the greatest actor of all time, but that both men have similar career arcs. Between 2001 and 2006, Brady won three Super Bowls and, between 2014 and 2021, he’s won an additional four. Both segments of Brady’s career are independently worthy of the Hall of Fame. Similarly, Pitt has two Hall of Fame portions in his illustrious career. Prior to 2006, the 58-year-old superstar had already worked with David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Terry Gilliam, Guy Ritchie, and other acclaimed filmmakers in many iconic movies. Since 2006, Pitt has continued to add to his Hall of Fame résumé by working with auteurs, emerging as an award-winning producer with Plan B Entertainment, and finally winning an Oscar for his role as aging stuntman Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
Pitt hasn’t lost any steam and shows no sign of slowing with the high-octane action-comedy Bullet Train. Directed by David Leitch—one of the premier directors in “New Wave Action”—Bullet Train might be too convoluted for its own good but doesn’t let its foot off the pedal. It’s a violent, often funny, and star-studded ride that’s worth the fare.
Unlucky assassin Ladybug (Pitt) is sent on a mission to retrieve a briefcase on a bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. In an attempt to rectify previous disastrous missions, Ladybug tries to peacefully execute this task. What he doesn’t know is that on the same bullet train is a rogues’ gallery of international assassins with their eyes on the briefcase. They include Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), The Prince (Joey King), The Wolf (Bad Bunny), The Hornet (Zazie Beets), The Son (Andrew Koji), and a few other wild characters. The briefcase and the assassins are somehow connected to The White Death (Michael Shannon), the leader of one of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations.
To talk about Bullet Train is to talk about the magnificent and feel-every-punch-and-knife-stab action choreography. Leitch (along with Chad Stahelski and Sam Hargrave) is at the forefront of “New Wave Action”—a subgenre of action films that prioritize hand-to-hand combat and telling a story through action versus CGI. The John Wick series (directed by Stahelski) created this subgenre and Bullet Train is the latest entrant. Within the first 15 minutes, you get an awesome fight between Ladybug and The Wolf. Ladybug can’t seem to figure out why The Wolf is trying to murder him and The Wolf is hellbent on getting revenge. They exchange punches, use the briefcase as a weapon, and throw a very sharp knife all whilst riding the fastest train on Earth.
In many movies, this would be the premier action sequence. In Bullet Train, it’s simply the beginning. The fun doesn’t stop there as Ladybug has to fight all the other assassins to protect the briefcase. Tangerine gets in on the fun in a wonderful snack car battle. Both men realize they need a water break mid-fight and, unfortunately, Tangerine gets hit with a glass water bottle (which somehow feels more painful than a gunshot). Leitch does a great job using the bullet train as a setting and creates different environments and constraints in every car.
Our assassins don’t have access to world-class weapons and have to rely on stuffed animals and smart toilets to make an impact. To add to the craziness, there’s also a poisonous snake on the loose that will have its victims bleeding profusely. In short, Leitch has created a sprawling and eclectic world that mostly manages to stick together. There are a few abrupt stops, however.
Bullet Train’s hyper stylization works both for and against it. The film rapidly goes back and forth between different storylines and frequently crosscuts between flashbacks and the present, causing whiplash for the viewer. It’s hard to get a grasp or semblance of the plot in the beginning. It seems all the characters are seemingly disconnected and aren’t given the same amount of characterization.
While Ladybug, Tangerine, and Lemon all seem to be a part of the same movie, the same can’t be said for The Son and The Elder (a great Hiroyuki Sanada). While both performances are good, their characters are tonally off from the wacky and zany vibe Leitch is going for. The Hornet and The Wolf are great characters who fit this world, but their screen time is shorter than the stops the bullet train makes. One wishes Leitch gave their characters more time or additional fight scenes.
At 127 minutes, Bullet Train is 15-20 minutes too long. Trimming some of the climactic excesses and getting a crisp runtime would have elevated this pretty good movie into great territory. We finally meet The White Death in the final over-the-top battle. The previous fight sequences had minimal reliance on CGI and it’s confusing why Leitch decided to use an overabundance of it in the final 20 minutes. The samurai fight between The White Death and The Elder is intense, but one wishes this would’ve been the primary focus. Instead, there’s another simultaneous battle as the train goes off the rails (and the movie to some extent).
Even in its shortcomings, the trio of Pitt, Taylor-Johnson, and Henry keep the movie on its tracks. Pitt is exceptional and has the time of his life in this world. He fights well and can deliver every one-liner with aplomb. Ladybug is trying to become a reformed assassin but hijinks keep ensuing. There’s a screwball comedy aspect to Pitt’s performance that’s wildly enjoyable. Imagine high-on-acid Cliff from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for two hours and that’s Ladybug. Taylor-Johnson and Henry have good chemistry and are responsible for many of the laughs in the movie. Henry’s running gag about being obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine mostly works, even if it outstays its welcome by 1-2 jokes.
Bullet Train, above all, is a testament to how important movie stars are. Without Pitt’s charisma, comic timing, and brutish strength, this would be a run-of-the-mill action-comedy. With him, it turns into an event and a movie that must be watched on the big screen. In Top Gun: Maverick, Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) tells Maverick (Tom Cruise) that his kind is heading toward extinction. Maverick responds that someday they will, but not today. Pitt, Cruise, and Brady may be getting close to retirement, though that day isn’t today. These three will continue to win Super Bowls and make blockbusters.