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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Bullet Train, Review: Brad luck Pitt

Bullet Train, Review: Brad luck Pitt

A Japanese book adapted into an American film, with Brad Pitt in the leading role, set on a high speed train, with armed and dangerous Mafia agents and gangsters on board, seems to be the menu for a high-octane entertainer. And for once, a film delivers most of what it promises. It is a quaint mix of mayhem, mirth and thrills. Bullet Train re-works the gangster genre with a twist that is so obvious that you wonder why did nobody think of it before. And that novelty is the speed at which dialogue is delivered, or, rather, rattled off. What better vehicle to try out such an experiment than a film called Bullet Train? If the train can clock 320 kms per hour, why can’t the characters speak at 320 words per minute? Leave aside the fact that intelligible speech has to be around 150-160 w.p.m. That rule applies to English. What rule should apply to a version dubbed in Hindi?

Trained American killer Ladybug, who believes he is one of the unluckiest men on earth, wants to give up the life but is pulled back in by his handler, Maria Beetle, in order to collect a briefcase on a bullet train, heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. He is unaware that on-board the train are an assortment of gangsters and criminal-minded characters: the Son of a Mafia Don called White Death, two ruthless killers called Tangerine and Lemon, who have rescued the son from a gang that held him for ransom, after killing 17 persons in the process, a young woman called Prince who poses as a schoolgirl but has a blood-curdling agenda. On board the train, Ladybug and other competing assassins discover their objectives are all connected.

Tangerine and Lemon have the brief-case, and they are supposed to deliver the Son and the briefcase to White Death. They have kept it where luggage is stored in the train, and to pinch it is a cinch. Before you can say Ladybug, the lady has been bugged. In other words, the brief-case has been taken. If the case was so brief, the film would have ended here, but the theft is discovered, and not wanting to face the wrath of White Death, Tangerine and Lemon (who is extra conscious of his name, which, in all probability, is a code name) are out get the thief. There also arrives Yuichi Kimura, son of an ex criminal organisation member, Kimura the Elder, who was removed from his position by White Death and whose daughter was flung off a building by Prince. Now wants to settle scores, both with Prince and with White Death. Prince too wants to settle scores, with…? And where is Kimura? A lot is going to happen between Tokyo and Kyoto, both in the front end and the back end of the Bullet Train.

Kōtarō Isaka is a Japanese writer, much decorated, whose works have been published in Chinese, French, Korean, Taiwanese, Thai, English, Italian, Russian and German (Hindi, anyone?). This is the first time his work has been made into a film, with a screenplay by Zak Olkewicz. Originally titled Maria Beetle, a character who is only seen in the climax, the screen version comes with a new name, Bullet Train, the title under which its English edition was published. Zak, who is ZOlkewicz on Twitter, has co-written written Fear Street Part II (1978) before Bullet Train. Whereas Fear Street was horror, this one is black comedy that unfolds at an express pace, with most characters getting into funny situations with deadpan looks.Bullet Train pays tribute to Dame Agatha Christie by turning Murder on the Orient Express on its head, and gets awy with it.

It is a bit odd that 80% of the characters in the film are Caucasian, including the main hero and the arch-villain, and all are aboard a Japanese train. At one point, the screenplay tries to justify this anomaly by letting you know that someone has bought all the tickets for this train beyond a point, and so no one will board the train anymore. But what about before that? The only three Japanese-looking humans on the train are a cleaner, a bar-trolley girl and a ticket checker. And all of them appear either unaffected or unaware of the goings on, that include bullets being fired, throats being slashed, blood dripping from faces and an enterprising man jumping on the train’s engine room, shattering the glass and entering as if nothing had happened at all. Then there is the joker, dressed in an inflated costume, ostensibly to entertain the commuters, until the costume comes off. One Caucasian lady commuter is bugged by Ladybug, and the other bugs, and keeps giving everybody a piece of her mind, till her mind…she herself disappears. There is a lot of philosophy doled out, including a piece about how a ladybug is one of the noblest creatures on earth.

Action is a highlight of the film, and some pieces of continuity have been sacrificed towards that end. Bullet Train is directed by a stuntman-turned-director, David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw). Atomic Blonde did not really deliver, so he has gone slow on the sexual content here, which is only present in the dialogue. To his credit, Leitch does not fix his lens on Pitt, but trains it on other train passengers too. Besides, he gives you several flashbacks to explain the equations between the characters, perhaps one too many. One does wonder why, in the days of video-calling, Maria Beetle and Ladybug communicate only through audio calls.

A Japanese film…well, a film set in Japan… cannot be complete without sword-fighting, samurai style, and there is a generous dose of that too. A mixture of various genres – action, crime syndicates, comedy, black comedy, thriller, and so on – the movie manages to blend them well. There are several twists and turns, emanating almost at the pace of the train, and they are evenly paced too. Leitch often holds back the obvious reaction, in the classic Chaplin theory, which is on these lines, “Comedy is not a man falling in an open sewer. It is comedy when the man notices the open sewer, jumps across safely, slips on a banana peel, slides back, and then falls in the sewer.” Many of the punches in Bullet Train follow this principle. AS far as the motor-mouth dialogues go, I am not totally convinced it is a good idea. However, the generation that has grown up listening to ratatat Radio Jockeys on private FM stations in India, might find it perfectly normal. 

Brad Pitt once again proves that he is not a mere good-looker, but can go through a whole set of emotions, given the chance. And there are plenty of chances on offer in Bullet Train. Maybe his constant whining about his bad luck is a bit much, prompting the headline for this review, but he has given his role a lot, including 95% of the stunts done in person. Joey King as Prince, the British assassin posing as a schoolgirl, was signed for a cameo, though her role is a little more than a cameo. Her looks lend themselves to the schoolgirl pretence and the deadpan mayhem that she unleashes when she comes out of the schoolgirl mode. It is worth noting that there is no heroine in the film, and nobody is paired with Brad Pitt.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Tangerine, a British assassin and Lemon's associate and Brian Tyree Henry as Lemon, a British assassin and Tangerine's associate, are cast as twins, though it is impossible to accept them as a such, Lemon being black notwithstanding. Henry has a better role, though Taylor-Johnson (or his double) gets to do the best stunts in the film. Andrew Koji as Yuichi Kimura, a Japanese assassin, whose daughter was thrown off the terrace of a building, has been moulded in the classic Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune school, even more so Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder, a Japanese assassin and Kimura’s father.

Michael Shannon as White Death, the leader of a criminal organization, who appears only in the climax, does a fair job. Benito A. Martínez Ocasio as The Wolf, a Mexican assassin with a vendetta against Ladybug, is more funny than dangerous. Sandra Bullock plays Maria Beetle, Ladybug's contact and handler, and the reference to Moneypenny from James Bond cannot escape you. Zazie Beetz as Hornet, an American assassin posing as a train crew member, Logan Lerman as The Son, White Death's son, and Karen Fukuhara as a train crew member are others in the cast.

A film of this nature has to depend a lot on three other departments, besides screenplay, direction and acting: cinematography, editing and stunts. Bullet Train scores high overall in all three heads, though I wish the film was at least 15 minutes shorter than the 128 that it clocks. Credit for cinematography goes to French lens-man Jonathan Sela (a Leitch regular), editing is by Elisabet Ronaldsdóttir (who is from Iceland and worked with Leitch in Deadpool 2 and Atomic Blonde; the breakneck pace is partly due to her sharp scissors), and the stunts must have had the personal supervision of the director. Music by Dominic Lewis remained unobtrusive and un-noticeable, with a hark-back to a couple of retro pop numbers of the 70s. The Hindi dubbing leaves something to be desired, resorting to local street lingo while translating American dialectics.

While India awaits its first bullet train, Japan has had them for ages. Getting Brad Pitt and Co. on it might be both a coup and questionable supplanting, but the adrenaline does flow, and Pitt’s luck holds. Whether it is 320 kms per hour or 320 w.p.m., matters little in the end. Buy your billet…er…ticket and get on. It’s a rollicking, throat slitting, bullet pumping, face blowing ride.

Rating: ***



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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