Saturday, 18 May 2024

‘Bullet Train’ a true non-stop action thrill ride


Action films are frequently constructed as thrill rides due to the surfeit of the non-stop clashes involving gunplay, explosions, wild car chases, and overall mayhem that often proves to be electrifyingly entertaining.

In the case of “Bullet Train,” where assassins battle on the world’s fastest train, almost the entirety of the action is, in fact, a wild, non-stop thrill ride on the Shinkansen through modern-day Japan.

With an overall disheveled appearance and wearing a bucket hat, Brad Pitt’s Ladybug looks more like a tourist than the intuitive and skilled assassin whose string of bad luck has taken a toll on him when his jobs went off the rails.

Boarding the high-speed train in Tokyo, Ladybug moves at the commands through an earpiece from his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock), an unseen presence who reassures him that he’s up to the task of retrieving a briefcase containing ransom money.

Even though killing targets has been a way of life for Ladybug, he’s going through an existential crisis of confidence, mostly due to his current desire of seeking a harmonious Zen-like state of mind and renouncing violence.

The newest assignment of a simple theft convinces Ladybug that he has no need of a weapon, even though his handler thinks otherwise, and her concern soon turns out to be prescient.

Unknown to Ladybug is that the sleek train has onboard several of the most elite lethal adversaries from around the globe, each with an agenda that is seemingly connected and yet with differing objectives.

The briefcase is in the possession of colorful British assassin brothers, Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are ironically called twins even though one is white and the other black.

Next to Ladybug, Tangerine, a Savile Row-tailored killer with slicked back hair and flashy jewelry, and the unkempt Lemon, who possesses a guileless demeanor and moral compass honed mostly from the lessons of “Thomas the Tank Engine,” are the most interesting characters.

It’s hard to tell if Tangerine is a sociopath or just a psychotic nutcase, but along with Lemon, he’s an extremely dangerous trained assassin. The twins make an amusing pair as they bicker like a married couple while dispatching a foe.

Snatching the briefcase is an easy task when it’s left in the luggage compartment, and Ladybug is instructed to disembark at the next stop, but circumstances interfere with the plan.

Detailed in a flashback to a Mexican wedding gone horribly wrong, it becomes clear that the unhinged Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), who lost his bride, is on the train to settle a score with Ladybug for his perceived involvement in her death.

Even when Wolf and Ladybug are beating on each other, Ladybug is confused and uncertain, and in his defensive moves, he’s trying to assess who this guy is and why this is happening, while Wolf has allowed an unbridled rage to overcome any sense of reason.

Meanwhile, a sweet-looking young woman known as The Prince (Joey King) uses her demure schoolgirl appearance to mask her true desire of fierce cruelty for the sheer pleasure of killing.

Family drama emerges when Kimura (Andrew Koji), a low-level Tokyo criminal in a perpetual alcoholic haze, boards the train to exact his revenge on the unknown culprit who tossed his young son from the rooftop of a department store.

Kimura’s stoic, unyielding father, known as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada) takes on the multi-layered character of the modest florist who is fiercely protective of his grandson, but remains a lethal assassin skilled in swordsmanship.

The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), involved in the theft of a deadly viper from the Tokyo Zoo, is a master of disguise who travels under the radar on every job she takes. Her intended victims seem to be everyone else.

Is it a matter of coincidence that so many assassins ended up on the same train, or are they being manipulated by an elaborate plan? The answer may come from the underworld boss known as the White Death (Michael Shannon) who shows up late in the game with his henchmen.

At a running time of roughly two hours, “Bullet Train” could have been better served with a little more judicious editing, but this is a minor quibble when there is so much carnage and craziness that jolt the senses with an energetic blast of delirious bedlam.

Brad Pitt’s nonchalant charisma turns the existential angst of his character into the familiar turf of roles played in films like “The Mexican,” the British crime caper “Snatch” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise.

Part of the fun in “Bullet Train,” directed by David Leitch whose credits include “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2” and the original “John Wick,” is the obvious pedigree of high-octane action mixed with dark humor.

“Bullet Train” will have its share of detractors, but one must enter the multi-plex primed for the kind of action-fueled diversion that was once the province of directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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