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.
Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.
Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.