Directed by David Leitch.
Starring Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey King, Zazie Beetz, Bad Bunny, Andrew Koji, Michael Shannon, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sandra Bullock and Logan Lerman.
Five assassins aboard a fast-moving bullet train find their missions have something in common.
Aboard the eponymous bullet train (a Japanese bullet train) are several different assassins trying to kill someone, save someone, or get a briefcase. Admittedly, the who’s connected to whom feels chaotic and confusing at first, which is easily forgiven as the assembled ensemble carries its characters through personality, charisma, and through skillfully staged action sequences.
David Leitch (a somewhat fickle filmmaker whose quality waned after helping the John Wick series into the world) is responsible for the locomotive thrills. Based on a book by Kôtarô Isaka (with screenwriter Zak Olkewicz seemingly expanding this story greatly, perhaps with one too many big revelations), David Leitch is aware that once he gets the story on his feet, he’s going to have a short one Acting offers each character doesn’t require narrative breaks, instead opting for a breakneck pace and constant excitement suited to his directorial sensibilities.
There’s also more than enough space to add stylistic touches, such as whirling camera movements (mainly when characters walk between wagons), irreverent humor (there’s an assassin who uses Thomas the Tank Engine and characters involved in the children’s series to analyze human behavior, much to his equally amusing annoyance straight-line partner) and goofy pindrops (“Stayin Alive” plays while Brad Pitt makes his way through the streets of Japan to the bullet train).
Narrative frustrations aside, there’s a crystallized sense of identity and fun inside express train, something many mainstream blockbusters can’t claim despite being produced on extreme budgets of $200,000,000 despite having access to A-listers. The film is committed to entertainment first and foremost, whether the action feels grounded in reality or transitions into a full-fledged gonzo live-action anime. David Leitch manages this escalation impressively, although one has the feeling that the third act could be tighter and perhaps a little less ridiculous. Again, it’s hard to get excited considering the characters are all having a blast.
Brad Pitt plays a world-weary and hapless assassin who has been given the new nickname Ladybug (hoping to reverse that luck) by his offscreen handler (the voice of Sandra Bullock). Repentant and questioning his work, he tries to retire or at least escape the murder. In order to take all this into account, he was given a rather simple task; a non-violent one that should enable him to get back to yoga, praying in temples, and reflecting on his past in no time. There is a marked briefcase on the train, which he must grab and get off at the next stop.
Of course it’s never that easy. There’s an assassin duo (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron-Taylor Johnson) in possession of the briefcase who also rescued the son (Logan Lerman) of a dangerous criminal (it wouldn’t be a spoiler if I say who, but it’s so much more Fun to experience in the moment the character appears on screen) proving he lives at every stop. Elsewhere, a young woman goes by the nickname Prince (Joey King), a maniac manipulator that the actress is totally enmeshed in, and who enjoys toying with such chaotic evil. International musician (and half-decent celebrity WWE wrestler) Bad Bunny is a Mexican assassin bent on getting revenge on the man who poisoned his wife. Meanwhile, Zazie Beetz unleashes a deadly snake on the train and has a goal.
The main subplot revolves around Kimura (Andrew Koji), a father who wants to avenge his hospitalized son (one of the passengers pushed him off a roof a few days ago), and who takes his father’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) noble words about one’s own protection makes family true. Michael Shannon also performs a sadistic piece called The White Death, someone everyone on board fears.
It’s easier to say that everyone has a vendetta with someone, mainly since express train introduces these characters clunky with awkward action elements through flashbacks. Part of the point is that the story has so many rewardingly wacky genius tricks up its sleeve that it doesn’t want viewers to know too much about these characters, which is also acceptable since for the most part we just want to see David Leitch throw them repeatedly in situations where they are forced to kick each other’s ass. Anger, fate and family responsibilities are themes, and while nothing necessarily profound breaks through, it all makes for snarky dialogue between punches.
Unsurprisingly, the action excels in close quarters combat and claustrophobic rooms (a knife ricochets off a briefcase when it comes to returning to sender). Still, it’s also impressive how many and how the film tracks down vital objects that will obviously come back into play at some point (there’s a water bottle that gets its silly throwback to how it ended up in a prime position to serve something Use). It could also be argued that the last 30 minutes negates that grounding in favor of a broader and louder destruction, which may not fully work here. But parts of the plot prepare the audience for reality to go out the window. And while some of the comedy might be perceived as youthful, there are also some clever payoffs for some jokes (the running gag about Thomas the Tank Engine and the TV show comes into play in important ways, after all). Admirably, David Leitch takes care of these characters as well, trying to hit some emotional beats, although he doesn’t quite succeed.
Perhaps the greatest strength of express train is that while Brad Pitt gets top billing, this is an ensemble piece that rotates between the characters as the narrative eventually assembles itself. He’s entertaining as a pacifist who just wants to get off the damn train but becomes enmeshed in fighting and protecting others, but David Leitch wisely recognizes that every car here is packed with magnetic qualities. As such, express train Hugs that get out of joint, finding the twisted pleasure in every far-fetched revelation and change of direction. The more ridiculous everything gets, the more you don’t want to get out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Movie: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the editor of Flickering Myth Reviews. Check here for new reviews, follow mine Twitter or letterboxd or email me at [email protected]