Bullet Train Blu-ray Review: Snakes on a Train

Stuntman-turned-director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) helms this crime caper featuring a colorful collection of scheming assassins gathered on a bullet train in Japan. While Leitch is known for his showy and bone-crunching stunt concepts, his canvas is shrunk here due to the plot limitation of a narrow train carriage, much like Snowpiercer. However, he rises to the challenge of the space constraints to deliver an amusing, action-packed thrill ride that never feels overly confined.

The story follows a bunch of hapless criminals who have all converged for different reasons on the same high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka. One character has an assignment to steal a briefcase and get it off the train as quickly as possible, while another pair have been tasked with safely escorting that same briefcase and the son of a crime boss to the final station. There’s also a schoolgirl scheming to twist the anguish of a father into a tool she can use to strike against her own father, as well as an assassin named The Hornet who poisons victims by stinging them with a syringe. Also, an actual killer snake gets loose, adding to the figurative nest of human vipers populating the train. The plot expertly spins out to reveal the relations and motivations of the characters, and even though they’re almost all unrepentant killers, Leitch finds a way to make us care about them. 

Pitt is pitch perfect as the weary, unlucky contract crook code-named Ladybug who hates conflict but is trapped in the wrong line of employment. He shows some masterful and effortless moves in his heavy stuntwork here, virtually proclaiming that old guys rule. Joey King is an odd choice for her character of The Prince, but manages to exhibit the necessary danger bubbling beneath her surface cool. Bad Bunny glares his way through a brief stunt-heavy cameo, while Sandra Bullock is just a voice on Pitt’s phone until the final reel. The breakout stars are Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as odd couple brothers who bicker more than they work, a constant delight that anchors the whole project. Taylor-Johnson in particular has the showiest role of his career, even more than the Kick-Ass movies, and makes a strong claim to move up the acting ranks with this indelible performance.

The film has some fun cast reunions, none more so than the presence of all three principals from The Lost City, as if they had such a blast on that one they just moved on to the next film together. Elsewhere, the casting of both Henry and Beetz gives us half an Atlanta reunion, and the teaming of Pitt and Leitch recalls Leitch’s lengthy resumé as Pitt’s stunt double dating all the way back to Fight Club. However, the best pairing is the one made for this movie, as Taylor-Johnson and Henry have such great rapport that they practically cry out for a Lemon and Tangerine prequel.

The core story is surprisingly faithful to the original novel of the same name by Japanese writer Kotaro Isaka, but diverges in the final act to tack on some unnecessary flair as the train reaches its destination, especially an illogical train derailment. Other notable changes are the aging-up and gender change of the Prince character, who is a boy around 12 years old in the book, as well as the multicultural casting. It never makes much sense why any of these international assassins would be operating within Japan at the same time, so it’s best to just turn off your brain and enjoy the wild ride. The best change is a lighter overall tone that amps up the comedic elements of the characters without sacrificing the gritty dramatic nature of the tale.

The Blu-ray contains over an hour of bonus features, with most being of the standard self-congratulatory soundbite format. However, the best bonus feature shows side-by-side footage of a few of the stunts and their previz origins, a true behind-the-scenes peek that shows the artistry taken to construct the stunts with stand-ins in advance of filming as well as how close the actors came to matching the original concepts. The worst bonus is a collection of ads aired during the NBA Finals with the characters of Lemon and Tangerine riffing with NBA stars. It’s nice to have additional footage of the awesome chemistry between Taylor-Johnson and Henry, but the forced unnatural pairing with bland NBA players as well as the sheer volume of ads make the novelty wear thin very fast.

Bullet Train is available on Blu-ray/DVD/digital combo pack on Tuesday, October 18th.

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Steve Geise

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