Wildly entertaining ‘Bullet Train’ handles its plot turns with finesse

Brad Pitt brings all his star power to a high-speed action film that transcends the usual cookie-cutter assassin stories.

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An assassin named Ladybug (Brad Pitt, right) battles deadly characters including The Wolf (Bad Bunny) aboard “Bullet Train.”

Columbia Pictures

As much as I loved the creative and blood-spattered action sequences in David Leitch’s wildly entertaining action-comedy “Bullet Train,” and as much as I appreciated the star-power lead performance by Brad Pitt as well as the fantastic ensemble work from the greatly talented cast, what dazzled me the most was …

The writing.

Hear me out now: Working from the rich and brilliant novel by Kōtarō Isaka (published as “Maria Beetle” in Japanese and “Bullet Train” in English), screenwriter Zak Olkewicz has crafted an exceedingly clever script that manages to create complete story arcs for more than a half-dozen characters, is peppered with zippy and quick one-liners, and is filled with a myriad of darkly funny fantastic surprises right through the closing credits. Unlike so many of the cookie-cutter, wisecracking-assassin movies in recent memory, “Bullet Train” acknowledges its outlandishness from the beginning and yet also manages to connect so many dots in creative, gotcha fashion.

‘Bullet Train’

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Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by David Leitch and written by Zak Olkewicz, based on the book by Kōtarō Isaka. Rated R (for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality). Running time: 126 minutes. After “early access screenings” Tuesday, opens Thursday at local theaters.

Brad Pitt’s Ladybug is a veteran assassin who has just returned from a hiatus in which he went into therapy and is going back to work with a new, Zen outlook on life. (He has been given the new moniker of “Ladybug” because he says he’s been plagued by bad luck his entire life and ladybugs supposedly bring good luck.) “Every job I do, somebody dies,” laments Ladybug, and yet he always somehow manages to escape unscathed. As Ladybug arrives in Tokyo, wearing a bucket hat and oversized glasses that make him look like a fisherman in search of a wharf, he’s on the phone with Sandra Bullock’s Maria Beetle, the Obligatory Assassin’s Mentor (OAM) who talks him through the job. (In just the last two years, Ellen Barkin, Woody Harrelson, Monica Bellucci and Paul Giamatti, among others, have played OAMs.) Maria tells Ladybug the job is super simple: He’ll board a bullet train bound for Kyoto and retrieve a briefcase containing, well, you know how it goes with these movies. Everyone wants that briefcase.

Indeed, Ladybug quickly stumbles onto the briefcase and now all he has to do is get off the train—and that’s when all manner of stuff hits the fan. Turns out there are number of dangerous characters also on the train (or eventually boarding), including:

  • Brian Tyree Henry’s Lemon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Tangerine, two notorious assassins who are constantly referred to as “the twins” but don’t appear to be twins. Lemon is a down-to-earth bloke who gets all of his life’s wisdom from “Thomas the Tank Engine,” while Tangerine is a flashy sort in a Saville Row suit straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie.
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Brian Tyree Henry (left) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play a bickering duo of killers known as “the twins.”

Columbia Pictures

  • Joey King is the Prince (her parents wanted a boy), who has the innocent looks and dress of a frightened schoolgirl but is in fact heartless and dangerous, and has masterminded much of what transpires on the train.
  • Then there’s The Wolf, played by Benito A. Martinez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny, who blames Ladybug for a horrific tragedy in his past.

Also on board are “The Son” (Logan Lerman) whose father is the legendarily ruthless crime boss known as the White Death; the Hornet (Zazie Beetz), a killer who is a master of disguise, and Kimura (Andrew Koji), a criminal who has boarded the train seeking the psychopath who pushed his young son off a roof.

“Bullet Train” is filled with major misunderstandings and crossed wires and brutal coincidences that often lead to mayhem. Among the weapons deployed: guns, knives, a water bottle, a stuffed animal, swords, bombs, a broom handle, a laptop, seatbelts, briefcases, fists, grenades, hypodermic needles filled with poison, knockout drugs and oh yes, there’s even a Snake on the Train.

Pitt plays Ladybug as a wannabe pacifist who often reacts in exaggerated wonder to the latest violent development; it’s as if Floyd from “True Romance” finally got off the sofa, put away the bong and became a career criminal. Ladybug doesn’t even know why so many of these people are trying to kill him, though it does seem to be about more than just that briefcase. He tries to reason with his opponents, but that works … never. So he has to spring into action, and even though he refuses to carry a gun, he’s one creatively destructive fighting machine when push comes to shove comes to stabbing and punching and choking and more stabbing.

The entire supporting cast is terrific, with Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson particularly outstanding as Lemon and Tangerine, who are constantly bickering and are capable of enormous bursts of violence, and yet have a genuinely sweet, brotherly affection for each other. Like all the major characters, they get their own backstory—and every one of those flashbacks sheds light on the motivations of these characters. It’s really quite something to behold.

David Leitch started his career doing stunt work and was actually Pitt’s double on a number of films, from “Fight Club” to “Troy” to “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” As the uncredited co-director of “John Wick” and the director of “Atomic Blonde” and “Deadpool,” Leitch is a truly gifted action director who can make the visuals pop in a variety of unique ways. “Bullet Train” is one of the best action movies of the year, but it’s also one of the funniest films of 2022.

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