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 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 “Our Brand is Crisis”

Former political strategist Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is out of politics after several successful, and not so successful, campaigns. She has suffered with depression and substance abuse (leading to her nickname Calamity Jane) and being away from the stress, doing pottery in her cabin in the woods, has helped calm her mind. Nell and Ben (Ann Dowd and Anthony Mackie) visit Jane hoping to get her to join their efforts on the campaign of Bolivian presidential candidate Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida) who is way behind in the polls with about three months left before election day. Advising the leading candidate is Jane’s rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). Pat is more than willing to do anything to help his candidate win, a lesson Jane has learned several times already. Every time she has faced him, Jane has lost. Ben impresses upon Jane the importance of the election for the people of Bolivia which has a history of violent uprisings and bloody coup d’état. Feeling the rush of a political campaign quickly envelopes Jane in the excitement and fervor of competition and dirty tricks and soon some of her old habits begin to resurface.

“Our Brand is Crisis” is based on a 2005 documentary of the same name that followed American political consultants as they worked with candidates in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election. Having not seen that documentary I can’t say if the level of dirty tricks and shenanigans match up with what is in the movie. I can say the movie plays a bit of a dirty trick on the audience as it pounds the message of “win at all costs” for most of its running time then tries to become a feel-good story of redemption in the last few minutes. Like many sudden changes of heart, I didn’t buy it.

Sandra Bullock is fantastic in “Our Brand is Crisis.” Her intensity and comic sensibility mix well to make Jane Bodine a fascinating character. Starting out as a bit of an emotional and physical wreck, the pace and seriousness of the campaign begins to bring Jane back to life. Before long, she is a huge cheerleader for her candidate and it sweeps the other characters and the audience along whether we like it or not. Bullock is the soul of the film. It doesn’t work if the audience doesn’t accept Jane as a juggernaut, throwing out ideas and strategies while working with a candidate that doesn’t always believe in her plans. This leads to some of the best moments in the film when Jane must make the candidate agree with her ideas even when they go against his personal beliefs. Sometimes the dirtiest tricks are played against the candidate for whom you work.

Movies like “Our Brand is Crisis” and “Primary Colors” give what feels like an inside look at how modern political campaigns are run. As the old saying goes, “Don’t ask how the sausage is made.” While it is likely the film is highly fictionalized and the kinds of things shown don’t actually happen it does paint a picture that is somewhat damning of the campaign process and how easily the electorate can be swayed or distracted by meaningless controversies. “Our Brand is Crisis” takes a cynical look at modern politics and is, for the most part, highly entertaining.

Where the movie lost me is in the final few minutes. Without giving too much away, we are shown a driven, dedicated soldier that charges the enemy with no mercy then at the end we are shown the equivalent of that same soldier now walking a picket line protesting against everything she used to stand for. The movie wants us to believe everything Jane has done leads her to a moral awakening. The movie uses a friendship that develops between Jane and a young volunteer she names Eddie, played by Reynaldo Pacheco, as the catalyst of that awakening. Considering how long Jane has been fighting in the electoral trenches, it doesn’t seem like enough of a motivation for her to lay down her rhetorical weapons and begin fighting for the other side. It feels like an attempt to turn this political machine into something touchy-feely and it makes everything that comes before it meaningless. Perhaps that is the point: That everything she has done before was meaningless and now she is trying to make a positive impact on the world. If that was the message then the script writer didn’t do a good enough job of making the case that Jane was ripe for a conversion. Instead, it feels more like a sell out and a cheap attempt to force a happy ending on a film that didn’t necessarily need one.

“Our Brand is Crisis” is rated R for some sexual references and language. The sexual references are rather mild and there aren’t many of them. Foul language is scattered but sometimes intense.

I could almost overlook the ending of “Our Brand is Crisis” because Sandra Bullock is so good as Jane Bodine. The rest of the cast does a great job as well with kudos to Billy Bob Thornton for giving us a slimy but likable villain; however, the ending works so hard at trying to make us feel bad about enjoying the hijinks of the main characters it’s like a parent wagging a finger in your face for doing something bad. I don’t appreciate being scolded by my entertainment when it does such a great job of making Jane and Pat so amusing in their deviltry. The movie tries to have it both ways but fails to make a strong enough case for the main character’s conversion to philanthropy.

“Our Brand is Crisis” gets four stars for everything except the last five minutes.

This week it’s the return of Brown…Charlie Brown. There’s also some British spy movie coming out. I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Peanuts Movie—


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