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If “Bullet Train” is one of the worst movies that Brad Pitt has ever starred in — better than “Troy,” but a hair short of “The Mexican” — this big shiny nothing of a blockbuster is also a remarkable testament to the actor’s batting average over the last 30 years, and some of the best evidence we have as to why he’s been synonymous with the movies themselves for that entire time. Because that’s the thing about movie stars, and why the last of them still matter in a franchise-mad world where characters tend to be more famous than the people who play them on-screen: They often get minted in good films, but they always get proven in bad ones.
“Bullet Train” is not a good film, but Pitt is having a truly palpable amount of fun in it, and the energy that radiates off of him as he fights Bad Bunny over an explosive briefcase or styles his hair with the blow dryer function of a Japanese toilet is somehow magnetic enough to convince us that we’re having fun, too. Even though we usually aren’t. Even though this over-cranked story of strangers on a Shinkansen — — tries so hard to mimic Pitt’s natural appeal that you can feel the movie begging for our bemusement with every frenetic cut-away and gratuitous flashback. Even though David Leitch’s cotton-candy-and-flop-sweat adaptation of Kōtarō Isaka’s “MariaBeetle” is the kind of Hollywood action movie so mindless and star-driven that it’s almost impossible to imagine how it started as a book.
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It’s even harder to imagine how it started as a book about Japanese people, as “Bullet Train” — set along the Hayate line railway tracks that run between Tokyo and Kyoto — boasts more white cast members from “The Lost City” than it does locally born major characters. I suppose that’s in keeping with the spirit of Zak Olkewicz’s intricately dumb screenplay, which twists Isaka’s original story into a crime saga about a gigantic Russian gangster named “White Death,” whose hostile takeover of a yakuza crime syndicate somehow explains why several of the world’s deadliest assassins have all found themselves aboard the same train (the identity of the actor playing Mr. White Death is a third-act surprise, but the reveal is worth the wait).
Pitt — codenamed “Ladybug” by an off-screen handler voiced by Sandra Bullock — seems like odd man out. Sporting a humble bucket hat, a raggedy hairstyle that’s a few bad months short of “Seven Years in Tibet”, and a zen attitude that owes more to the Dude than it does a contract killer, Ladybug doesn’t appear much interested in murder. Not anymore. Maybe he used to be a regular Agent 47, but these days he’s more into killing people with kindness (“You put peace into the world and you get peace back,” he tells the voice in his head). It’s just his usual bad luck that he was called to replace someone else for a quick snatch-and-grab job at the last minute, and that virtually every other passenger on the bullet train he boards seems to have an interest in procuring the same briefcase.
The most enjoyable of these rivals are a British pair of brothers referred to as Lemon and Tangerine, their mission-specific nicknames growing more insufferable every time this movie tries to squeeze them for an easy laugh (is all the “fruit” talk gay panic, or does it just fail to amount to anything else?). The former, played by Brian Tyree Henry, is an oversized kid obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine — a trait that surprisingly traces back to Isaka’s book, despite sometimes coming off like a hacky bit of Hollywood comedy screenwriting. The latter, embodied by a mustachioed Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is a dick-heavy Jason Statham type who squeezes into a three-piece suit like it’s a muscle tee.
Both actors commit to the saint-like working of elevating this basic Frick and Frack routine into something fun and almost real (Henry delivers another frustratingly inspired performance in his ongoing quest to squander generational talent on the likes of “Superintelligence” and “The Woman in the Window”), to the point that “Bullet Train” is sometimes able to muster some genuine personality out of its pinball machine pacing and neon-lit noise. The rest of the ensemble is less helpful. Joey King wears thin as a faux-innocent femme fatale, Andrew Koji can only grimace and grunt as the Japanese assassin trying to kill her, and Bad Bunny — much like Zazie Beetz — is basically flattened into the wallpaper once the movie bleeds him of his character’s personality. Logan Lerman is low-key delightful as a glorified human prop (millennials never really get the chance to go full “Weekend at Bernie’s,” and it’s great to see one of them make the most of it), but his performance proves typical of a movie in which the sets do most of the heavy lifting.
“Bullet Train” is unashamedly more animated by style than substance — the dialogue sets the bar so low that the film’s snaky plotting begins to feel impressive by comparison — but that only becomes a problem because Leitch struggles to keep things looking fresh. The action movie aesthete who made “Atomic Blonde” into such an electric Cold War gut-punch has fully surrendered to the hack-for-hire behind “Deadpool 2” and “Hobbs & Shaw,” and the artful brutality that made Leitch’s 87North Productions seem like it might be modern Hollywood’s answer to Hong Kong-style action has given way to a mixed bag of comic mayhem and a garish mess of explosive CGI setpieces.
A handful of playfully choreographed brawls help elevate “Bullet Train” above the usual (the aforementioned briefcase fight between Pitt and Bad Bunny includes a few beats that had my audience wincing aloud), but it never feels as if Leitch is using the cramped space of the Shinkansen to the full extent that a “John Wick” movie would. Confined to an endless corridor of empty train cars that are all lit to resemble trendy hotel bars, Leitch’s film is stuck in place at 200mph, even in spite of a non-linear timeline that hopscotches between its many subplots and constantly forces its characters to re-evaluate their fates.
The whole thing might derail altogether if not for how lightly Pitt dances through it, munching on the scenery as if it were a whirl of cotton candy. His performance is so at peace, even in the face of near-certain death, that it frequently borders on the dissociative, as if he were extrapolating an entire character from the acid trip that Cliff Booth took in the final minutes of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” The way he resolves a tricky situation involving a venomous snake in the bullet train bathroom reaches that same kind of blissed out nirvana — it’s a belly laugh in a movie that otherwise struggles for smirks — and the decision to drop in a Criss Angel “Mindfreak” reference for good measure is just icing on the cake.
It’s like Ladybug doesn’t really want to be there, and is determined to make it out alive while causing as little harm to himself or others as humanly possible, and Pitt’s take on playing the character seems modeled after the same approach. “Bullet Train” may be going nowhere fast, but Pitt always seems like he’s already there, safe in the knowledge that we’ll happily watch him smile through all the chaos that crashes around him (including two standout cameos, one which nails an actor’s star power, and another which completely misapprehends it). Pitt’s stardom has never been more obvious, and it shines bright enough here for everything else to get lost in the glare.
Sony Pictures will release “Bullet Train” in theaters on Friday, August 5.
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