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Action & violence fuel ‘Bullet Train’


“Bullet Train”

Rated R. At AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters.

Grade: B-

Based on the 2010 novel by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka, Columbia’s Brad Pitt-fronted effort “Bullet Train,” one of the summer’s few original major-release titles, retains its Japanese setting, although not its entire Japanese cast of characters. This has opened the film up to a “whitewashing” charge similar to the one leveled against Scarlett Johansson and the 2017 release “Ghost in the Shell.”

“Bullet Train” is “Murder on the Orient Express” on meth and set in Japan. It features a droll Pitt, 58, as a hit man named Ladybug, who is traveling on a “bullet train” from Tokyo to Kyoto with other hired killers, including Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who is obsessed with the cosmic implications of the British media franchise “Thomas the Tank Engine,” his partner and brother Tangerine (Brit Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the young role-playing killer nicknamed Prince (Joey King). Lemon and Tangerine were supposed to transport the son (Logan Lerman in a “Weekend at Bernie’s” turn) of a crime lord named White Death (Michael Shannon in a fright wig) and a small case full of an impossible amount of money. Earlier, Ladybug encountered a killer named Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny) and engaged in a hand-to-hand or hand-to-laptop battle with him. Ladybug, who does not like to use guns and believes in “personal growth,” is in constant phone contact with his handler Maria (a mostly unseen Sandra Bullock). The action begins to the tune of a Japanese pop “Staying’ Alive” with Kimura (Andrew Koji) at the hospital bedside of his intubated young son, who has been pushed from the roof of a building. Kimura’s venerable father The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada, TV’s “Westworld”) blames his son for his grandson’s condition. Kimura and The Elder will also get onboard.

Stayin’ alive, indeed. First, the train has other passengers. Then, it does not. “Bullet Train” was directed by David Leitch of “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde” fame. Leitch’s ties to Pitt go all the way back to “Fight Club” when Leitch was Pitt’s body double in the fight scenes. Leitch is a capable director to be sure, and the fight scenes and shootouts in “Bullet Train” are first-rate, violent choreography.

But one almost constantly feels that “Bullet Train” is a Quentin Tarantino movie in dire need of Tarantino’s superior wit and knowledge of genre-film legend and lore. Adapted by Zak Olkewicz, whose only previous credit is the Netflix R.L. Stine-based “Fear Street” film “Fear Street: Part 2 – 1978,” “Bullet Train” features the clever/not-clever rat-a-tat dialogue we’ve become accustomed to in big-budget action movies. It’s the lingua franca of “John Wick” type movies, and the cast members, including King and Tarantino-veteran Pitt, are good at mouthing it. But like much of the action, the dialogue becomes part of the film’s not-quite-distinctive-enough, action-movie wallpaper.

Among the set pieces is a wedding that turns “red” in a more disgusting way even than “Game of Thrones.” A highly venomous snake is loose aboard the train (“Snakes on a Train?”). Zazie Beetz’s role is too small for this Beetz fan. The film features a couple of arguably pointless cameos, including Bullock’s. “Bullet Train” is obsessed with Japanese “smart toilets” (insert joke). Johnson thinks he sounds more witty if he shouts. Fayetteville, N.C.-born Henry speaks with a British accent. “Bullet Train” doesn’t go nowhere, exactly. It just doesn’t get to its destination.

(“Bullet Train” contains profanity, gruesome images and extreme, gory violence)

This image released by Sony Pictures shows Hiroyuki Sanada in a scene from "Bullet Train." (Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures via AP)
This image released by Sony Pictures shows Hiroyuki Sanada in a scene from “Bullet Train.” (Scott Garfield/Sony Pictures via AP)


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