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Film Review: Bullet Train (2022)

For those unfamiliar with the concept of Chekhov’s Gun, I’ll kindly enlighten you: originated by playwright Anton Chekhov, it’s the idea that “one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Naturally, this law is applicable to all storytelling media (such as movies, of course), and, as you would assume, it doesn’t strictly have to be about an actual firearm. It can be a vial of sleeping powder, a box of firecrackers, or a venomous snake… for instance.

That small and practical revision is especially convenient for Ladybug (Brad Pitt). A professional assassin, he is brought in for a simple job: the retrieval of a silver briefcase from a Tokyo bullet train. Given his recent streak of collateral casualties in his line of work, Ladybug has been talking with a therapist, and has expressed a belief that he’s simply “unlucky.” In turn, he decides that a gun is an unnecessary extra risk to bring for such a straightforward gig, and leaves it behind before boarding. It quickly becomes clear that this job, one in which many people seem to be inexplicably intertwined, is anything but straightforward.

Among the merry band of codenamed characters — an ensemble that would make Agatha Christie proud — are several key players: we have the man hell-bent on getting revenge for the near-death of his son (Andrew Koji); the pair of British hired-guns, one of whom is fond of his effin’ and jeffin’ (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the other convinced that everything he learned about reading people came directly from Thomas the Tank Engine (Brian Tyree Henry); and the girl who fancies herself the main character in this story, and seems to have the good luck for it (Joey King). Even though her luck seems to be in direct contrast to Ladybug’s, it becomes apparent that fate is ultimately what has led to this large-scale rendezvous.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an absolute sucker for single-location flicks. The subgenre, by its very nature, is a cheap but risky method that prioritizes and necessitates a compelling screenplay. It’s an attractive option for low-budget and indie filmmakers in particular, one which has produced a lot of gems… and a lot of tedious slop. In the case of Bullet Train, we have a film which takes place entirely on a speeding metal can — save for the abundant flashbacks — and with a fat, juicy, blockbuster budget. Given its lack of financial constraint and its star-studded cast, Bullet Train has all the potential for a conventional, uninspired, forgettable summer popcorn movie.

Conventionality is certainly present, but mostly only in regard to the superficial elements of the film. As has become expected in mainstream action comedy, the comedic aspects are funny enough, sure, but also tend to downplay the more dramatic narrative beats; it would’ve been nice to feel the seriousness instead of having it shrugged off with unnecessary one-liners. Knowing this is another film from director David Leitch (Deadpool 2) should be enough to tell you the kind of humor you can expect: it’s just edgy enough to garner a chuckle out of its target audience, but not edgy enough to go beyond vanilla comedy.

Luckily, there are many more redeeming qualities than compromising ones. Bullet Train isn’t your typical script-be-damned cash-grab. Writer Zak Olkewicz definitely put a lot of confidence in his screenplay, and it results in a remarkably slick bunch of plots, almost all of which are given their due care and attention; I’d compare it to the many threads and flair of Seven Psychopaths. The action sequences are also impressive; with fight choreography utilizing the confined sets and props, it’s miles ahead of the mindless action we’ve become accustomed to… even if it’s a bit over-relied-on by the end. There’s plenty to separate Bullet Train from its cinematic siblings, and it’s a really solid way to spend two hours.

Overall rating: 7/10

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Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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