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A&E >  Movies

‘Bullet Train’: A fast, chaotic trip to nowhere

Aug. 3, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 4, 2022 at 4:04 p.m.

By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

As if we needed more proof of the Tarantinization of contemporary cinema, “Bullet Train” barrels into theaters to remind us. A generation ago, Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” – followed by the even more popular “Pulp Fiction” – electrified audiences and the film industry alike, sending a jolt of visual energy and compulsive verbiage through an action genre that had gone moribund. Ever since, we’ve been awash in imitators who have sought to master QT’s branded elixir of sadistic violence punctuated by expository flashbacks, deep-cut needle drops and grandiloquent pronouncements on pop-culture arcana.

Has it gotten old yet? Not to the makers of “Bullet Train,” in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s Royale-with-cheese banter has morphed into rapid-fire disquisitions on Thomas the Tank Engine, and in which nearly every other Tarantino signature is slavishly forged with shameless fealty. The result is a movie that is almost constantly two things at once: breezily lighthearted and overwrought; hyper-energetic and lazy; bracingly fresh and drearily derivative. Directed by David Leitch, who has evinced impressive action chops with such films as “Atomic Blonde” and the first John Wick installment, “Bullet Train” is reverse-engineered to satisfy an itch routinely met by the likes of Ben Wheatley, Matthew Vaughn, Guy Ritchie and Edgar Wright. If you’re craving one more variation on the well-worn theme of promiscuous bloodlettings accompanied by glib verbal filler, Leitch has served up a presentable slab of grist for an increasingly creaky mill.

The chief pleasure to be had watching “Bullet Train” lies in seeing Brad Pitt deliver one of his throwaway left-handed performances, here nerding out in a bucket hat and pair of thick-rimmed glasses and generally taking the mickey out of his star-god persona. As Ladybug, a member of an elite assassination force whose expertise lies in “snatch and grab” jobs, Pitt is relaxed, endearingly goofy and consistently on point. Indeed, Tarantino’s reach extends even to Pitt’s relationship with Leitch, who has worked as Pitt’s stunt double, an unmistakable echo of Pitt’s role in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

The cross-references don’t stop there in a film brimming with in-jokes and winking asides, up to and including cameo appearances that will induce either laughs or eye rolls, depending on the viewer’s tolerance for unabashed self-amusement. Even thought “Bullet Train” has been adapted from Kotaro Isaka’s novel, it has the feel of a movie concocted in a hermetically sealed Hollywood lab, with every beat – and beatdown – landing just so. Ladybug’s latest marching orders – delivered by his handler Maria, played by Sandra Bullock in an ennui-filled vocal performance – are to fetch a silver briefcase from an overnight train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, a doddle of a job that nonetheless sends Ladybug into paroxysms of self-doubt: He has begun to question his life of violence and subversion, even going so far as to leave his once-ever-present gun behind.

The briefcase turns out to be supremely important to any number of people on the train, which makes it all the more curious why it’s so easy for Ladybug to find it and snag it for himself. But logic isn’t the point of a story populated by a cast of colorfully raffish hit men, ne’er-do-wells, a precocious chaos merchant and an ever-looming crime kingpin called the White Death.

Supported by an able ensemble cast that includes Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, Joey Adams, Zazie Beetz and the rapper Bad Bunny, Pitt ambles jovially through the proceedings, proving to be just as adept with “Bullet Train’s” torturous physical stunts as with spouting lines like “Hurt people hurt people,” apologizing to an opponent for mansplaining and interrupting one of several mano a manos by offhandedly guzzling a bottle of sparkling water.

The joke-joke-fight rhythm continues apace until a final confrontation in which the connections in “Bullet Train” are explained by way of an improbably elaborate scheme. What starts out as a slick, streamlined delivery system for mayhem, carnage and quippery finally finds its inner Agatha Christie. For all its supercool posturing, casual cruelty and lurid overcompensation, “Bullet Train” was a cozy all along.

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