With two different trailers, playing the concept as both straight action and comedic bloodbath, it would be easy to think 'Bullet Train' is a movie no one is quite sure what to do with.
Easier still to see 'Bullet Train' as just another comedic gore-fest from 'Deadpool 2' Director David Leitch. There are certainly a lot of similarities in the tone, action sequences, and abundance of katanas. Yet here it feels like the violence is a distraction, the blood and flying limbs leaving us forgetting to look too closely at what’s happening and why. It has to be said: 'Bullet Train' is masterful storytelling cunningly disguised as mindless comedic gore.
As the movie progressed, I was struck by the multiple ways you can engage with the narrative. On the surface, it’s a silly, violent heist flick set on a train, and I’d have enjoyed it if that was all there was to it. And yet, this is also a whodunnit rife with red herrings and twists, all the while somehow, inexplicably, managing to be a profound reflection on the way we so easily ignore villainous acts as long as our fictional anti-heroes do at least a little good. At times, it feels like watching 'The Hunger Games' if it was stacked with assassins and generally terrible people, and yet, you can’t help sympathising with, and rooting for, Ladybug (Brad Pitt), Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
As someone who finds fictional bloodshed oddly cathartic, I love the absolute violent chaos on offer here. This is Brad Pitt at his best, effortlessly balancing comedy and carnage with the sort of earnestness that lets the movie slip a helluva lot of contemplation into the mix in fun and quirky ways. 'Bullet Train' is not a movie that takes itself seriously, even if an argument can be made for its status as a piece of blood-soaked philosophy (possibly even gory life-coaching). While there’s no sermonising, or a clearly sign-posted moment to provide a moral to the story, it’s hard not to feel like something profound is being said.
If you’re squeamish, afraid of snakes, or hate graphic violence played for laughs, you’re probably going to hate this movie. If you’re looking for strong logic and anything more solid than hand-wavy science, this may well be a frustrating ride, but for those able to suspend a fair amount of disbelief and just enjoy the carnage, this is a spectacular – and gleefully gory – romp in which everything and nothing matters beyond the booms and the blood spatters.
'Bullet Train' is in cinemas now.
Author’s note: In reviews, I try to be honest about controversies involving social justice issues, so that you can make an informed decision about what you want to engage with. There have been arguments about the whitewashing of the most important characters in 'Bullet Train', and the diversification of the ensemble overall. However the original novelist, Kōtarō Isaka, has come out in support of the movie, calling his created characters ‘ethnically malleable’ and noting that they’re ‘not real people, and maybe they’re not Japanese.’ As the creator doesn’t feel it’s a negative, I’m respecting his judgement.