“Bullet Train” certainly moves at an appropriately brisk pace, with Brad Pitt heading a sprawling cast. But the breakneck action is offset by a smart-alecky tone that proves both uneven and occasionally too cute for its own good, along with a mashup of styles – from the music to the visuals – that comes across like a Quentin Tarantino wannabe, with a dash of “Deadpool” for good measure.
That latter influence shouldn’t be surprising, since director David Leitch oversaw the “Deadpool” sequel, in addition to toiling in the “John Wick” and “Fast & Furious” franchises. The Tarantino echoes are also heightened by Pitt’s presence, having shown off his playfully macho side in that director’s films, most recently winning an Oscar for “Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood.”
The story, however – which screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapted from Japanese novel – doesn’t possess enough fuel to consistently sustain that tone. Even extensive flashbacks to get the narrative out of its confined space can’t add enough intrigue to the machinations of these strangers on a train.
Joining the story in progress, Pitt’s bad-luck hitman (codenamed Ladybug) boards a bullet train in Japan, with orders to acquire a briefcase full of cash. Alas, he’s not the only skilled assassin on board, with each pursuing different marching orders, confusion as to who’s pulling the strings and a whole lot of miscommunication along the way.
If Pitt’s world-weary character just wants to complete the assignment and disembark, others harbor more personal motives. The various factions range from a mysterious young woman (Joey King) to a squabbling pair of operatives referred to as “twins” (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) to a revenge-minded killer played by Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, a.k.a. Bad Bunny.
That barely scratches the surface of the cast, including cameos clearly intended to provide little rewards to the audience. The tradeoff, though, is that some more recognizable faces appear so briefly as to barely register.
The claustrophobic setting actually works to the advantage of staging the fight sequences, which are brutal, bloody and frequently played for laughs. Indeed, more than one mimics the interrupted showdown in “Kill Bill,” including the amusing dilemma of how to try to kill somebody without violating the rules of the train’s “quiet car.”
For the most part, though, “Bullet Train” underscores the challenges in trying to infuse this kind of movie with the qualities of a live-action cartoon, even if the goal is two hours of unpretentious escapism.
This isn’t another sequel, which in this genre almost by itself feels like cause for celebration; still, nor does the movie feel remotely original. Perhaps that’s why even though the resulting ride isn’t without thrills, in terms of punching a ticket for the theater, it’s hard to recommend catching this “Train.”
“Bullet Train” premieres Aug. 5 in US theaters. It’s rated R.