Bullet Train review: A fun thrill ride that sometimes doesn’t know where it’s heading

Two images from Bullet TrainSony Pictures

While occasionally operating on style over substance, Bullet Train is an action-packed romp worth the cinema ticket price.

Bullet Train, Brad Pitt’s newest action movie, has received somewhat mixed critical reviews in the short time that it’s been available. The film, which features Pitt as a bumbling peace-wishing assassin aboard a bullet train with multiple other assassins, is currently sitting at 58% on Rotten Tomatoes.

But to me, this middling percentage feels odd. While the movie – which is directed by David Leitch, of Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and John Wick fame – is by no means a masterpiece of cinema, it goes big in everything it attempts to be, and is far from a middle-of-the-road lackluster fare.

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And in a world of remakes and franchises, it’s always worth checking out something original at the cinema, so here’s a – somewhat unpopular – review, which is that the film is definitely worth going out to see.

Minor spoilers for Bullet Train ahead…

Bullet Train gives has all the elements of a fun thrill ride

Bullet Train has all the technical elements required to heighten whatever action is taking place – and there’s a lot. Like a ride at a carnival, there’s bright flashing colors, fast-paced movements, and a killer soundtrack, including a great “I Need a Hero” needle drop. And while a train is by no means an original setting for a film, its cramped environment allows the action to play out inventively.

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These elements make the movie a visual treat, and accompanied by its energized editing, the action shoots off the screen like a bullet. Although, sometimes the GCI can be rather cartoonish, which the movie seems to lean into, like with its comical use of slow-motion during that end scene which we won’t spoil. The fight choreography is the perfect blend of creative martial arts, clever prop use, and wacky situations leading to and stemming from such action.

The movie also doesn’t hesitate to shy away from blood and gore, helping an otherwise lighter-tone movie still feel tense. There are moments where you legitimately feel like a main character is going to die, because naturally, in a train with multiple assassins – and a poisonous snake – at least a few of them are going to die.

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Even when you expect a character to suddenly turn up alive, as per the standard in action films, these death scenes still manage to be shocking and emotional regardless, which is no small feat, and this is greatly due to the strength of the film’s characters.

Bullet Train packs a cart full of iconic characters

The movie is funny – really funny in fact, and this is due to its large cast of characters that bounce well off each other. Now, no one is giving the performance of their career – in fact, one could even call the performances camp, but it fits the brightly colored, wacky world of the film well. And while there’s an onslaught of big personalities, you’re instantly able to recognize what defines these characters.

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Pitt’s handler, who’s codenamed Ladybug, is a great action lead for our current time, since he never actually wants to fight anyone, instead sprouting phrases that he learned in therapy, such as: “Hurt people hurt people.”

Joey King is delightfully hate-able as the manipulative heiress Prince, and the hitmen twins’ (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) dialogue, which mostly contains Thomas the Tank Engine references and could easily become grating, manages to be sold by the actors’ charm. There were even cheers in the audience when Michael Shannon’s central villain, the White Death, appeared on screen.

Bullet Train posterSony Pictures
The Bullet Train poster depicts a varied cast, but not everyone gets to shine.

Though in such a large ensemble film, unfortunately not every character gets to shine. The central family, specifically the father (played by Andrew Koji), who opens the film, feels a little too grounded in comparison. Bad Bunny’s Wolf and Zazie Beetz’s Hornet feel like glorified cameos – though speaking of cameos, this film has some great ones which we won’t spoil just yet.

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The film pulls us along, but it doesn’t hold our hand

What makes the film interesting is that at its core, it’s a mystery, akin to Murder on the Orient Express. When a certain character dies, the film doesn’t explain who killed them, or why, until later on. Despite the film having a relatively simple premise, the questions that arise from such a situation are enough to keep you invested. Why are all of these assassins here? And why do they all want each other dead?

Even if the film’s answers can sometimes be obvious, there’s enough little twists throughout to keep you on the edge of your seat, and the world of the film feels different enough from our own that we can easily sit back and accept the unusual goings-on, even when we don’t know why they’re happening.

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Bullet Train sometimes misses its stops

Now, the film’s many negative reviews aren’t completely off, as there are a few places in which the film is lacking. The events that set many of the characters in motion, that being their children or wives being killed, feels like an overdone trope for a film that’s trying to subvert them.

The editing, while usually hitting a good fast-paced tone, can sometimes be rushed to the point of being jarring. A character may appear on screen with no clue as to how they got there. The brightly colored opening credits that burst onto screen are incongruous with the film’s prior sombre opening scene.

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The way shots are set up can also make it predictable what is about to happen. When a character gets suddenly hit by a truck, you already know that they’re going to get suddenly hit by a truck. And explosions are used far too leniently, to the point where if you tapped a car in this universe, you could expect it to explode.

The heavy use of stylized editing and music can often be overkill, especially when it’s used to introduce characters like the Yakuza, whom we never see again after their introduction. The film does have a problem of prioritising its wacky style over actual substance, forcing humor into scenes where they don’t belong. Our main villain has a final line that is supposed to be funny, but just comes off as odd, which lessens the impact of the character.

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And ultimately, while the film has a central theme of fate, which cleverly links all of the characters together, it doesn’t seem to know what it’s actually trying to say on the topic. Something a character says about fate in one scene is immediately undercut by a twist of someone else’s fate in the next scene.

This is primarily due to the cast being an ensemble; since there is no singular central plot, it leads to the emotional core and thematic meaning of the film drowning under the sea of quirky set-pieces and zany interactions.

Brad Pitt looking bruised and bloody in Bullet TrainSony Pictures
Pitt’s Ladybug learns a lesson about fate, but we’re not quite sure how he gets there.

However, the film ultimately isn’t trying to be a grand meaningful story. It’s trying to be a fun action romp that pits a load of wacky characters against each other. And it definitely succeeds in that regard. In an age of streaming services, this is one of the few films that you need to see on the big screen, in order to let this Bullet Train speed past in all its glory.

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Bullet Train comes out in cinemas today, August 3.