Bullet Train: Witty but silly with corny one-liners
Hot on the heels of The Gray Man comes Bullet Train, another A-lister action movie which can’t boast about much more than its cast of colourful characters.
Both serve their purpose to entertain; but in the realm of action flicks where you don’t have to think too much about characters, plot or anything else, The Gray Man has stiff competition.
For what it’s worth, Brad Pitt charms as Ladybug, a hired assassin whose stints in therapy and anger management classes have left him less than eager to re-enter the criminal underworld of guns, fistfights and briefcases full of cash.
Tasked with stealing a briefcase containing $10 million on a Japanese bullet train, Ladybug tries to keep his composure by remembering what his therapist said and refuses to bring a gun. But that does not mean that there isn’t a whole host of other zany characters on board that are ready to fight tooth and nail for the briefcase-shaped MacGuffin.
On board the bullet train he encounters twins Lemon and Tangerine, operating under questionable codenames and played by the charismatic Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively. Then there’s Prince, a psychotic young woman with a talent for explosives, acting like a scared little girl. Puerto Rican Rapper Bad Bunny also joins the fray - but only for a moment.
All these characters orbit the briefcase and thoroughly beat, stab and shoot each other in doing so. But they remain codenamed at all times, every one of them exaggerated comic book-esque characters that blurt out one-liners and ironic quips at regular intervals.
When it comes to blows between characters, there will inevitably come a moment when someone will say something along the lines of ‘Not cool!’ after being punched or utter a ‘So that just happened!’ when things don’t go according to plan.
It’s a surefire way to get a laugh. But just as we look back at action movies from the 80s and laugh - or cringe - at corny one-liners delivered by good and bad guys alike, we might do the same when looking back at action movies from the late 2010s and 2020s.
When Pitt asks ‘Did you just stab me?’ to the guy who is hellbent on murdering him and stops mid-fistfight to have a drink of water, the shtick wears a little thin once you’re aware of his intentions.
This style, in no way unique to Bullet Train, makes every character seem like they are an aspiring stand-up comedian always looking for a chance to bust out a notebook full of jokes for the occasion. It will make you laugh, sure, but you might not necessarily remember much about the plot or the people in it at all.
That being said, Bullet Train does make for a good exercise in a kind of filmmaking that can be hard to pull off. Throwback jokes, quick cutaway gags, stylised vignettes and a whole lot of self-awareness remind viewers of films like The Big Short or Snatch or Hot Fuzz in terms of quick editing and subtle winks to the audience.
When it does overstep into either territory, it shows. Sometimes Bullet Train becomes surprisingly grizzly for a film where Brad Pitt can’t seem to stop repeating platitudes about mindfulness like a middle-aged father who has recently started yoga. Sometimes one of the key characters, Lemon, will not stop talking about Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s cute, sure, but all it does for the script itself is showcase a slightly cringey overzealousness to come across as lighthearted and quirky.
But the quick-footed style, coupled with a genuinely amusing script, makes Bullet Train really quite fun, if little else. Like The Gray Man, it sticks to what it knows and capitalises on it.
A high-speed balancing act that keeps things simple and entertaining, Bullet Train’s plot, characters, set-pieces, twists and turns all take a backseat to a fairly witty, very straightforward and silly movie in which everyone is a caricature, and no one seems to mind.