Director David Leitch’s “Bullet Train” comes across as if director Quentin Tarantino had decided to make a Scooby-Doo mystery. It is a mix of eye-popping visuals, fast-talking people and pop culture material but in the end it all comes down to a predictable bad guy reveal.
This is not an unexpected path for Leitch as he has tended to lean more toward style over substance with past works such as “Deadpool 2” and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw.” Leitch likes to disguise a lack of a good script with his relentless visual approach to filming.
The closest thing in “Bullet Train” that comes to a plot is the efforts of an emotionally burned out assassin with the codename Lady Bug (Brad Pitt). A string of bad luck events finally forced Ladybug into a world of self-reflection. He returns to work with the attitude that violence isn’t always the answer.
His peaceful core is tested on what is supposed to be a simple mission to steal a briefcase full of money. The theft is to take place on a bullet train that is zipping across the Japanese landscape.
Ladybug didn’t count on having to face the killer twins with the codenames Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who have been assigned to bring the suitcase and kidnap victim back to his father.
Also on the train is the moony-eye Prince (Joey King), who has her own murderous agenda, and Kimura (Andrew Koji), a grieving father who has been pulled into the high-speed caper.
The fact the story unfolds on a bullet train does have an Agatha Christie feel to it. Just like “Murder on the Orient Express” or “Death on the Nile,” having the “Bullet Train” story set in a confined space ramps up the claustrophobic tension.
It also creates a bit of a continuity problem as the train that can move at lightning speed seems stuck in the same urban environment. This creates a sense of going nowhere fast.
And that nowhere is the script. Writer Zac Olkewicz is more content to focus on pop culture quips than developing a smart story. Each reveal along the way is so obvious the only surprise is that Olkewicz assumed people would be surprised. Even the reveal at the end of who is providing the voice for Ladybug’s handler is obvious for anyone who has seen a movie in the last 10 years.
Pitt has fun playing the assassin-lite from his quirky wardrobe to the general life direction of trying to give peace a chance. A little more detail on his unlucky past would have made Ladybug a more textured character.
Even with his flaws, Ladybug is far more developed than Lemon and Tangerine. They are reduced to being bickering partners who are more interested in discussing the pluses of fruit or the power of the children’s TV show that follows Thomas the Tank Engine than completing their mission. If they were any less two dimensional, the pair would vanish off the screen.
A more direct assault with King’s character also would have helped. There are some story crumbs spread around about how her past has made her so bitter. Instead of delving into those elements, Leitch and Olkewicz keep falling back into the safe approach of focusing on how King’s character looks so innocent but is so mean. More context was definitely needed.
But, context is not Leitch’s style. His “Bullet Train” has the dark violence of a Guy Ritchie film and the pop culture parade of a Tarantino offering. What Leitch did not copy from the pair is their ability to create characters who are more than human cartoons.
There are those who need no more serious story than a Scooby-Doo adventure and Leitch has hit that mark. It also has so much skull-splitting gore that it makes “Deadpool” look like a nursery school production. If only more time had been spent on the story then “Bullet Train” would have been a more valuable ticket to ride.
2 1/2 stars
Cast: Brad Pitt, Bryan Tyree Henry, Joey King, Andrew Koji, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Director: David Leitch
Rated: R for strong violence, language
Running time: 126 minutes.