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'Bullet Train' offers Brad Pitt and murder on the disorient express

Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

In “Bullet Train,” Brad Pitt plays a lovable-loser assassin (code name: Ladybug) bent on self-improvement. He’s an easygoing sweetie, in the spirit of John Cusack’s gun-for-hire in “Grosse Pointe Blank,” to name one film you may wish you were rewatching instead of watching this one.

This one’s well made in its chosen attack. It’s fun for a while. And then, not so much.

I say this realizing “Bullet Train” may well be exactly what millions of summer '22 action fans are after: ultraviolence without weight, and with a wink, though there’s an occasional stab at human feeling in its interrelated stories of competing assassins after a precious suitcase on a superfast train from Tokyo to Kyoto.

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The movie’s overture misleads the audience into expecting a somber underworld crime drama. A preteen boy, grievously injured in a plunge off a rooftop, lies in a hospital bed. Who threw him to his near-death? The boy’s father (Andrew Koji) gets a lecture from his gang lord father, The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), about his failure to protect his family. The Elder is fighting for criminal dominance, we soon learn, with a Russian interloper, White Death (Michael Shannon, wittily vicious). His delayed entrance signals the mayhem of the movie’s last section.

En route, “Bullet Train” plays around with flashbacks and visual footnotes, in the style of Guy Ritchie’s British crime sprees or Quentin Tarantino’s odes to exploitation films past. On board the train, bickering twin London assassins in tweed overcoats (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) carry the code names Tangerine and Lemon, and debate the implications of Lemon’s lifelong devotion to Thomas the Tank Engine.

Bryan Tyree Henry, left, and Brad Pitt star in "Bullet Train." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

A shifty young woman dressed in Japanese schoolgirl garb (Joey King) changes personalities and alliances like the wind. A knife-wielding, vengeance-seeking Mexican drug cartel heir known as Wolf (Puerto Rican rapper-turned-actor Bad Bunny) has come to Japan to kill the man, or woman, who executed an entire wedding party. Scenes from that misfortune pepper the flashbacks, for laughs, in a festival of projectile blood vomit soaring in slow motion.

Through it all the Pitt character is just trying to get the right suitcase and get off at Kyoto in one piece. With the voice (Sandra Bullock’s) of his supercool handler murmuring in his ear, Ladybug soon realizes the extent of his competition on board. They’re there for interrelated reasons. Their connections from prior engagements — the cartel wedding job; a 17-corpse melee in Johannesburg, scored to “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” — are revealed over the course of two hours of peppy carnage, numbing glibness and the occasional payoff.

An adaptation of the 2010 Kotaro Isaka novel, one of his popular “Hitmen” series, “Bullet Train” has been cast, deftly, with actors ready to play. Even Pitt, never much in the verbal-facility or quick-time dialogue department, loosens up and finds an effective sweet spot at the intersection of unkillable tough guy and exasperated bad-luck charm.

For an Americanized version of Japanese source material (well, internationalized, in terms of casting, but heavy on the Anglos), director David Leitch makes sound business sense behind the camera. He worked on the first “John Wick,” delivered an enjoyably wiseass “Deadpool” sequel and has proven proficient at both practical stunt work and (per the overscaled ridiculousness of something like “Hobbes & Shaw,” which he also directed) a spit-ton of digital effects.

Brad Pitt, left, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson star in "Bullet Train." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

The spirit’s almost there to pull it off. But the movie does grind on. The later stages of “Bullet Train” jump the rails figuratively and literally; the best bits are content to work through smaller problems either in economy or first-class, wherein no one can fully trust anyone, and there’s a deadly snake loose. That’s right. “Snake on a Train.” Everyone’s going to use that phrase, and I want to be just like everyone else.

At one point the childlike assassin Lemon complains about the state of entertainment today: “twists, violence, drama — no message.” He’s talking about the movie he’s in, of course. But that word “drama” doesn’t quite fit, because drama would require different and more interesting rules of engagement. I enjoyed the work of the actors here. Caring about what they’re up to, even in a larky Neverland of hard-R slaughter, is another story.

‘BULLET TRAIN’

2 stars (out of 4) 

MPAA rating: R (for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality)

Running time: 2:06

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