Review of “Bullet Train”

There is a saying I first became aware of thanks to “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” It is attributed to the Klingons and goes, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I have just now found out, thanks to Google, it is from French author Marie Joseph Eugene Sue and his novel, “Memoirs of Matilda” published in 1843. If it was possible to dish out revenge in a cold, calculated, machine-like way, then more people might get away with it. I’ve watched and listened to enough true crime to know people cannot take revenge in a cold way. Revenge in the real world always seems to be delivered hot. Hot tempers, hot lust, hot greed, are all motivations for revenge. Rarely does one approach punishing a perceived or actual harm from a practical, nuanced point of view. At least, we don’t hear about those. I’m certain someone, somewhere, has managed to exact revenge so perfectly, and so coldly, as to get away with it. Of course, we’ll never know about the successful revenge. That will stay the purview of novels, movies and TV shows. This week’s movie, “Bullet Train,” seems to have a simple snatch and grab crime at its center, but it grows into a labyrinthian tale of lies, familial entanglements and, yes, revenge.

An American mercenary, codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt), picks up a last-minute assignment to board a bullet train in Tokyo, grab a metal briefcase with a train sticker on the handle, and get off at the next stop. Ladybug thinks it sounds too simple and easy, but his handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock, mostly heard on the phone) assures him it is exactly as advertised…and it might have been if a cavalcade of other criminals and assassins weren’t also on the train, trying to get their hands on the briefcase: The Twins, Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry) who have just killed 17 men to get the son of a Yakuza kingpin back from kidnappers. The briefcase contains the $10 million ransom paid by the kingpin. There’s also Yuichi Kimura (Andrew Koji), member of the Yakuza, looking for the person that pushed his son off the roof of a building. A young woman known only as The Prince (Joey King), the person who allegedly pushed the boy. The Wolf (Benito A. Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) has a beef with Ladybug, but Ladybug doesn’t remember who he is or why he wants to kill him. The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) has a different, but connected, mission she’s on. All these assorted killers, and more, are traveling through the Japanese countryside in comfort at 200 miles per hour, barreling towards a mysterious killer known only as The White Death.

Brad Pitt was 56 years old when filming began on “Bullet Train.” While Pitt may be best known for his boyish good looks, the years are beginning to show on his face with laugh lines at his eyes and the weary expression of a man who has been famous for a long time and is no longer impressed by it. Pitt has 84 acting credits on IMDB.com dating back to 1987 as “uncredited boy at the beach” in a movie called “Hunk.” He’s been married to Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, dated likely hundreds of women and has six children from his marriage to Jolie, four adopted and two natural. Pitt has lived more life thanks to his fame and fortune than most of us can even imagine and yet, his best acting work usually comes from characters that are simple, average normal people. No unique traits or ticks, no odd accents or prosthetic noses (like Orson Welles), and no convoluted backstory of tragedy and woe. Pitt is best when he’s just…a guy. Despite having the odd codename of Ladybug, Pitt’s former assassin, turned bag man, is as plain and average as one could get, considering his past. Pitt ambles through “Bullet Train” solving one problem after the next, frequently with fist fights, knives and guns, but preferring to use logic and common sense to resolve an issue. Only those around him demand violence in the face of adversity. Ladybug trying to stay Zen with each dilemma is what makes Pitt’s character so watchable and so likable. This is a Ladybug you would love to have on your shoulder.

Aside from the action, “Bullet Train” is very, very funny. The bickering between Tangerine and Lemon is delightfully profane and funny. Lemon’s constant references to Thomas the Tank Engine and Tangerine’s growing annoyance at them make up much of their conversation and dynamic. Taylor-Johnson and Henry make a winning pair as the unrelated assassins known as the Twins. Their chemistry also provides a bit of heartwarming emotion as the story goes along. I’d love to see a movie about the adventures of Tangerine and Lemon, mostly to hear them arguing about who is a Diesel and who is a Thomas or some other character from the kids show. They make a winning pair even it they are ruthless killers.

Joey King is also amazing as The Prince. Everything from her British accent to her claims of innocence and victimhood ring true, even when we know they are lies. The Prince may be the most dangerous person on the train. She has no conscience about her actions as she’s focused on her main goal, with nothing allowed to get in her way. King makes The Prince likable and despisable at the same time. It’s quite a performance.

“Bullet Train” is rated R for strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. Numerous characters are shot, stabbed, sliced with swords, burned, explosions, cut in half by passing train trestles, train crashes and hit by cars. The most graphic deaths are those by sword as blood sprays from both the wound and the sword. Several people are killed by poison that causes bleeding from the eyes. Also, a character has half their head blown off. The sexuality is a brief scene showing people rolling around in a bed with only the male of the couple being topless. Foul language is common throughout.

It may not have a deep message or much meaning beyond killing two hours in a theater, but “Bullet Train” is a wild ride that barrels across the screen like…a runaway train. There’s plenty of laughs, action, and a couple of cameos that will draw out more laughs. But the main reason to see the film is to marvel at Brad Pitt’s performance. He doesn’t seem to be doing anything special, and maybe he’s not. However, that average guy performance is a masterclass in subtlety and nuance. There’s nothing flashy about Ladybug, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

“Bullet Train” gets five stars out of five.

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Review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

While raiding a HYDRA base in the small eastern European country of Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s mind control scepter, the Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in the form of the Hulk, encounter the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).  He possesses super speed while see can manipulate minds and emit energy pulses.  Their powers have been enhanced due to HYDRA experimentation that has killed all other test subjects.  The raid is ultimately successful and the scepter is recovered but Wanda plants the nightmarish image of all the Avengers dead in the mind of Stark.  This leads him to restart a program to create, in his words, a suit of armor around the world.  The Ultron program was stalled due to software issues but Tony believes he and Banner can use the mind-control stone in the scepter to rewrite the program and create an automated defense system.  Tony’s helpful computer program J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) continues working on various configurations of the program and it comes to life.  Confused, J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to aid Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in understanding his existence.  Ultron quickly overwhelms J.A.R.V.I.S. and takes control of Tony’s robotics lab, creating a rudimentary body for himself.  Ultron has misinterpreted Tony’s intensions and decides the only way to protect the Earth is to destroy all human life.  During a celebration party in the Avenger’s tower, Ultron makes his presence known and attacks the team but they are able to defeat him; however, the program of Ultron escapes into the Internet and finds facilities to create more versions of himself.  Ultron also approaches the Maximoff twins about helping him destroy the Avengers.  The pair has a particular hatred for Tony as their parents were killed by weapons from Stark Industries.  They agree to help and the three, along with several robots, head to the African nation of Wakanda to meet with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who possesses a huge amount of the super strong metal vibranium.  The Avengers show up as well and a major battle ensues.  Wanda is able to place spells on nearly all the Avengers and each is shown devastating images of either their past or their greatest fears.  Banner is transformed into an out of control Hulk causing him and Tony, in his Hulk-Buster armor, to battle and nearly destroy a Wakandan city.  The world is turning against them due to all the property damage they cause, the team is in shambles and questioning if they can still be an effective fighting force and if they can defeat Ultron.

If you see “Avengers:  Age of Ultron,” strap in and leave the large soft drink at the concessions stand as you are in for a 140 minute rollercoaster of action and special effects.  You may also want to bring ear plugs as the film is quite loud with all the metal clanking and various things exploding nearly all the time.  It is a visual spectacle that works well within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); however, if you are looking for meaning on a deeper level you may be disappointed.

The early trailers made it appear “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” would be a dark and serious affair.  That worry is unfounded as the trademark banter between the characters is fully on display even in more serious moments.  Each character has a chance to lighten the mood with the interplay between Stark and Rodgers delivering the most lighthearted moments.  Thor, Natasha, Barton and Banner also get opportunities to make the audience smile and chuckle.  Even the newly added Maximoff twins get a chance to throw off a quip.  It can’t be considered a full-on comedy but the film is much less dour than first looks suggested.

The quality of acting is about what you expect in any Marvel film but having Spader provide the voice of Ultron raises the quality of the villain’s performance.  James Spader gives Ultron a level of gravitas that might have been missing from another actor.  Ultron’s commanding baritone voice ringing with condescension, his ease in dancing verbal rings around Stark and the others and the cold calculation of his ultimate plan puts him head and shoulders above most other Marvel villains.  Plus, the robot Ultron is literally twice as tall as anyone on screen.  That physical dominance of the frame only adds to Spader’s voice acting.

The acting of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo is put to the test in the film’s biggest flaw:  The will-they-won’t-they romance of Natasha and Banner.  While an unknown length of time has passed since “The Avengers,” the notion of these two becoming a couple seems a bit out of left field.  Perhaps this is writer/director Joss Whedon’s attempt to humanize these bigger than life characters.  Since we know very little of their lives outside of teaming up to fight a world-threatening evil, this might have been an effort to bring these demigods down to our level.  Quite frankly, it feels a bit tacked on.  Banner and Natasha are probably the two most dangerous members of the team.  She has been trained practically since birth to be an assassin and he fears he will hurt innocent people when he transforms into an out of control rage giant.  The two of them together strike me as a disaster waiting to happen.  It also doesn’t help that she was flirting with Rodgers in “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier” and in the comics has been romantically connected to him and Barton.  Of course, I don’t understand how anyone could turn down the affections of Natasha who is probably the sexiest woman in any of their lives, but that’s just me.  While the romance sections of the movie pay off by the film’s end, they tend to bring the story’s momentum to a halt.  They probably could have been incorporated in a different way to fit better within the narrative.

Then there’s the problem with all the Marvel movies and superhero films in general:  The concept of meaningful stakes for the characters.  So far, nearly every MCU film has followed a predictable pattern of a worldwide threat bringing out the hero or heroes, that threat nearly defeating the hero then with one final effort the hero wins.  Marvel has a slate of films mapped out over the next decade that involves these characters.  Since we know they will be around in 2018 for whatever sequel, where is the danger to the protagonist?  It simply isn’t there.  We know Iron Man, Captain America and the rest will live to fight another day since they have a contract calling for them to appear in however many more movies.  The only mystery is how the villain will be defeated and that’s not nearly as satisfying as truly being in doubt as to if the hero will survive the final attack.  This formula make get a shakeup in coming films as both Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are nearing the end of their contracts.  Also, the next Captain America film is based on the comic book storyline of a battle between factions within the superhero community where not everyone survives.  The fiscal realities of increasing star salaries and actors desire to work on different projects may be what puts some real threat into the evil plans of the villains.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and some suggestive comments.  There are fights throughout the film between robots and Avengers, Avengers and Avengers and Avengers and others who are not robots or Avengers.  It is all fairly mild as film violence goes.  There is very little blood and no gore unless you count the robot guts that are displayed when one is destroyed.  During the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, a building under construction is demolished, some people in an elevator are nearly killed and the Hulkbuster suit has a piston-action fist that repeatedly punches the Hulk in the face.  All the suggestive comments are between Natasha and Banner except for one ancient reference by Stark during the scene where each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer.  Foul language is widely scattered, very mild and used as the set up for a running joke.

The weirdness of business agreements between companies is on full display in the film.  In the comics, the Maximoff twins are the children of main X-Men villain Magneto; however, since Marvel sold the movie rights for the X-Men and the use of the term mutant to Fox, their heritage could not be mentioned.  You might wonder how the characters could be used at all.  It comes down to the fact that the pair has been in both the X-Men and the Avengers so the lawyers decided both companies could use the characters.  Clear as mud, right?  Then, here comes Spider-Man who had been the cinematic property of Sony but can now appear in both Marvel and Sony movies.  It is enough to make one’s head spin; but if the complicated storylines of superhero movies don’t induce vertigo then legal issues between movie companies should be a piece of cake.  What does this have to do with whether “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is worth your time and money?  Nothing, I just thought it was interesting.  Since most Marvel movies are critic proof, it really doesn’t matter what I think.  I will offer this one bit of advice:  Don’t pay for the 3D.  There is a few times it makes items on screen really pop out but most of the time it is hardly noticeable.  See the standard version and enjoy the ride with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  It isn’t art but it’s fun.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” gets five stars.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Just a couple of new films this week and both are comedies.  Maybe I’ll review one of them or maybe it’ll be another film.  Stay tuned.

D Train–

Hot Pursuit–