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Brad Pitt and Bad Bunny star in Bullet Train.Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

  • Bullet Train
  • Directed by David Leitch
  • Written by Zak Olkewicz, based on the novel by Kotaro Isaka
  • Starring Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Hiroyuki Sanada
  • Classification R; 126 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Aug. 6

Critic’s Pick

There are an awful lot of weapons stashed onboard Bullet Train, the new high-speed summer thrill-ride that is hoping to prove that there is still room for big-screen movies that go boom – and that don’t involve superheroes. Guns, grenades, knives, bombs, samurai swords, even briefcases and soda-pop bottles: In the skilled hands of the many eccentric assassins sharing the film’s Tokyo-to-Kyoto journey, anything can be used to maim and murder. But Bullet Train’s biggest weapon, of the secretly funny variety, rests in the chiselled form of star Brad Pitt, who once again proves that he is as charming a buff-and-tough movie god as he is a wry, self-deprecating comedy star.

Headlining a packed cast fit for a rush-hour commute – complete with half a dozen whack-a-mole cameos – Pitt stars as a seasoned but unlucky assassin code-named Ladybug. Only getting back into the game after entering therapy to ease his neurotic conscience, Ladybug has been hired for a simple snatch-and-grab job: Quickly board a train leaving Tokyo, find a briefcase containing MacGuffin-only-knows, and hand it off to a buyer waiting at the next station. Naturally, things go sideways, and Ladybug finds himself facing off against an Expendables-sized and Crayola-coloured group of mercenaries who badly need that same briefcase.

There are the British brothers/brothers-in-arms Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the pint-sized but sadistic schoolgirl the Prince (Joey King), two vengeance-seeking yakuza heavies (Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada), and Mexican narco-psycho the Wolf (musician Bad Bunny). All the killers come equipped with both heavy arsenals and the kind of ultra-colourful back stories that just barely tread the line between darkly funny and aggravatingly precious.

Which is as good a way to describe the artistic through-line for Bullet Train as anything. Whenever the ride threatens to go slightly off the rails with its over-the-top havoc and oh-c’mon-now character tics (Lemon has an unbearably quirky affection for Thomas the Train that no possible emotional payoff can redeem), the trip is saved by the comedic chops of an ultra-game Pitt. The actor’s talent for upending his ultrasmooth charisma isn’t remotely new – he’s spent as much of his career playing the fool as he has the hero. But his what-me-worry shtick is as perfectly executed here as Ladybug’s own executions are sloppily botched.

Oh, and about those many murders: Originally developed as a deadly serious adaptation of Japanese author Kotaro Isaka’s acclaimed 2010 novel (titled Maria Beetle), the guns-and-fun frivolity of Bullet Train represents an industry swerve that is just as, if not more, interesting than Pitt’s career path.

The guns-and-fun frivolity of Bullet Train represents an industry swerve that is just as, if not more, interesting than Pitt’s career path.Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures

Going from the grim but neon-accented brutality of the first John Wick film and Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch has quickly developed a new action-blockbuster aesthetic that delivers hard and fast violence with a wink and a nudge. Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, and now Bullet Train: These are action movies whose vision board consists of one lone image: The iconic bloodstained smiley face from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Murder, mayhem, delivered with a tee-hee. The laws of physics aren’t as important here as is the uptick of the body count – death doesn’t matter because nothing does. It’s all a laugh.

For now, I’m chuckling along – I’ll take highly stylized spurts of gore and guffaws over the bloodless antics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and before you note Leitch’s Deadpool culpabilities, remember that that movie exists in a different, extremely R-rated multiverse, at least for now). But there are still more than a few moments in Bullet Train in which the shots fired feel as impactful as blanks. So long as Pitt is the one doing the firing, I’ll be fine. But the man can only reload every so often.

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