By Josh Reilly B.
In the current era of Hollywood, it seems every movie studio is attempting to produce a big budget action thriller equipped with big names as stars, Marvel-style comedy throughout, and explosions (and more explosions). The desire for a film like this has been around for years, but the surprise success of John Wick, a full blown franchise at this point but one that began as an unassuming low budget action movie, gave film executives the idea that this achievement can be reproduced with great monetary earnings to boot.
To an extent, every original action movie in the past half a decade (or more at this point) has taken a heavy dose of inspiration from Keanu Reeves’ Wick flicks (rhyme intended). Netflix’s The Gray Man, for example, shot on location in various countries, featured clear and easy to watch action sequences, a style that is now in favor after years of the Bourne-shaky cam effect. That film also featured an assassin type figure who is being hunted by his former colleagues who all belong to an immersive secret organization, a plot that is essentially the exact same as the last two John Wick outings. The influence of those movies is clear, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
Enter Bullet Train. Sony’s action film starring Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor Johnson, both of whom are at the front of a surprisingly star studded cast that features a few surprising cameos, is yet another example of a movie that takes the John Wick approach. The action is there, and there is certainly a lot of it, and the studio clearly knows that this, along with Pitt in the starring role (he’s Brad Pitt after all), is most likely the main reason for audiences turning up at the theater to watch.
They’re not reinventing the wheel in Bullet Train, and that’s okay. In fact, the film knows exactly what it wants to be. Early on, Brian Tyree Henry’s character, an assassin named Lemon, says that modern day film and television is jam-packed full of “twists, violence, drama, no message”, adding “what are we supposed to learn?”. This line is no accident, and it serves as a self referential joke (of sorts) that Bullet Train is not going to pose a mind-bending philosophical question or make the viewer think deeply about the human condition. It’s an action movie with a sole focus to entertain the audience, and that’s okay.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no mind-bending elements in the film, though. The action is extremely entertaining, so the filmmakers deserve props for pulling that off. As the title suggests, the film takes place on a high speed train in Japan, which could have potentially provided some logistical challenges. There’s only so many different action set pieces that can take place on a train, for example, but director David Leitch manages to make it all feel refreshing and new. Despite the obvious similarities to John Wick and other action films that came before it, Bullet Train does manage to at least include one unique element in the setting.
A particular shout out must also go to Brad Pitt, who brings his A-game yet again. His last starring role was in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, a film that is vastly different to this one. Perhaps the actor wanted to show his range and all the different roles he can do, which was never really in doubt when it comes to someone as talented and popular as Pitt. Still, there’s certainly no doubt now. Pitt can go straight from Oscar fare to a supporting role in a romantic comedy (The Lost City) to a straight up action movie and succeed in all of them.
But as Lemon commented that entertainment has no deeper meaning anymore, the line ironically does have some deeper meaning, although not necessarily in the way that the filmmakers would hope. There is absolutely no thought provoking aspect of Bullet Train, which again is okay. If every film attempted to go deeper in that way, the art form would get repetitive stale and quickly. Still, there doesn’t need to be a philosophical message, a hidden meaning, or anything else of the sort in order for a film to linger with the audience after it’s finished. Continuing to think about a movie even after its conclusion is arguably one of the key signs of a good film, and ideally every film would linger with the audience for a time after.
Bullet Train falls short, way short in fact, of this measure. It’s entertaining to watch but it doesn’t go beyond that in any way. Some might label this as a side effect of being a pure action film, but James Bond, John Wick, and other franchises have that sustainability. Bullet Train certainly doesn’t, so while it succeeds in entertaining audiences for two hours, there’s nothing more to it than that. It’s painfully straightforward, simple, and breezes past you. For all the work that clearly went into it, from the set design to stunt work and training, it’s a great shame that Bullet Train can’t become something more.
Bullet Train seemingly has a singular focus to entertain audiences, and it certainly does that. Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast are excellent and elevate the film, and the uniqueness of the setting is a major positive. The film doesn’t linger in any way, which seems like a waste given the amazing cast and crew that worked on it, but perhaps that was never the aim in the first place.