The bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours and 15 minutes — just the right amount of time to pull off a cartoonishly over-the-top action movie, in which half a dozen assassins shoot, stab and otherwise perforate each other’s pretty little faces in pursuit of a briefcase stuffed with cash. It’s a high-stakes game of hot potato, choreographed and executed by “Atomic Blonde” director David Leitch, in which a self-deprecating Brat Pitt wears a bucket hat and oversized specs, Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play bickering “twin” hitmen Lemon and Tangerine, and “The Princess” wedding crasher Joey King (known here as “the Prince”) is a cunning killer who can fake-cry on command.
These quirky characters — and half a dozen other lethal so-and-sos, with names like “the Hornet” (Zazie Beetz) and “the Wolf” (Benito A Martínez Ocasio, aka “Bad Bunny”) — are identified by giant on-screen labels superimposed over their flash-frozen mugs, the way Martin Scorsese or Guy Ritchie like to intro their ensembles. “Bullet Train” feels like it comes from the same brain as “Snatch,” wearing its pop style on its sleeve — a “Kill Bill”-like mix of martial arts, manga and gabby hitman movie influences, minus the vision or wit that implies.
Adapting the pulp Kotaro Isaka novel “MariaBeetle” for a mostly Western cast, Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz make each of these characters twice as eccentric as necessary, lest audiences’ attention wane for an instant. Maria (as voiced by Sandra Bullock) is the bug in Pitt’s ear, guiding the newly nonviolent tough guy (a detail recently seen in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” movies) through what’s supposed to be the cinchiest job of his career: board the bullet train in Tokyo, grab the MacGuffin and step off at the next stop. Cha-ching goes the choo-choo. Except Ladybug (as Pitt’s character is dubbed) is hella unlucky, and there appear to be more murderers crammed together here than Agatha Christie could fit on the Orient Express.
Meanwhile, innocent bystanders are at a minimum. There’s a busybody woman who keeps shushing Ladybug and Lemon when their fist-fighting gets too disruptive, but after a few stops, practically the only passengers who remain aboard are ones who would literally kill for that briefcase. There’s also an incredibly poisonous Boomslang snake, whose venom takes effect in 30 seconds, making victims bleed from their eyes, like poor Logan Lerman (the first character to bite it, serving out the rest of the film in floppy-corpsed “Weekend at Bernie’s” mode).
The movie’s strategy is to keep throwing deadly obstacles at Pitt’s character, who gets his hands on the bulletproof Tumi fairly easily early on. Ladybug’s remarkably good at improvising his way out of trouble — even when the movie literally goes off the rails at the end. Setting all this mayhem aboard a train wasn’t Leitch’s idea, though the stuntman-turned-director makes the most of that limitation, staging visually interesting set-pieces in different cars. Ladybug and the Wolf have a knife fight in the bar area. Later, he and Tangerine smash up the kitchen. There’s some funny stuff that happens in a neon-lit segment of the train involving the mascot for a local kids’ show, who keeps getting punched in the face. Even the lavatories are fair game.
The fight scenes feel relatively original, which is impressive unto itself, considering how many other creative filmmakers there are trying to distinguish themselves in the genre. Leitch tends to approach these standoffs the way Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire once did their dance numbers: The violence needn’t be taken literally (which is tough at times, considering how brutal the bloodshed can be), but rather appreciated mostly for their choreography and capacity to surprise.
Still, there’s something callous about how casually Leitch takes human life. “Bullet Train” reps one of the first and most ambitious pandemic-made blockbusters to be released, demonstrating that Leitch and company felt confident enough the world would go back to normal that they could have the Prince push a six-year-old off a roof just to lure the kid’s father (Andrew Koji, by far the film’s weakest link) onto the train. King’s character is a real piece of work, wearing a black bob and pink schoolgirl-style getup. She’s a heartless manipulator, frequently posing as an innocent victim to ensnare her prey.
Eventually, “Bullet Train” reveals that behind this in-no-way-coincidental roundup of assassins was an elaborate plan by fearsome underworld boss the White Death (Michael Shannon) to avenge the death of his wife. But he’s not the only one who lost a loved one, as Hiroyuki Sanada’s samurai-like “the Elder” demonstrates when he boards a stop or two before Kyoto.
The geographical logic of “Bullet Train” doesn’t make much sense, but then, the movie looks as if it was produced without the principals so much as stepping foot in Japan. And why not? It’s essentially a live-action cartoon, with high-profile cameos sprinkled in for added laughs. Stylistically, Leitch is trying his darnedest to channel the likes of Tarantino and Ritchie, even if the dialogue and mock-British accents aren’t nearly strong enough to earn such comparisons.
Tangerine and Lemon are likable characters, though the latter is constantly going on about how everything he learned about people comes from “Thomas the Tank Engine” (which explains a lot about how reductive the movie’s understanding of human nature is). Similarly, Ladybug is constantly quoting trite self-help aphorisms, which invariably get a laugh. This may be a fun enough ride, but such punchlines drive home that neither the characters nor the film they inhabit are particularly deep. Quite the opposite, in fact. As Calvin and Hobbes so aptly put it, their train of thought is still boarding at the station.