Bullet Train Review: Derivative but Entertaining Summer Blockbuster

Anyone that has been well-versed in film for the best 40 years is going to find something in Bullet Train that feels like a copy of a copy. Wild gun-fu action with slick direction? That's your John Wick-influence. Two chatty hitmen with funny codenames and a penchant for pop culture? There's your Tarantino. Varying tone between action and comedy that doesn't always work? Shout out to Deadpool. It's all to say that there's not really anything here you haven't seen before, but at least Bullet Train has the saving grace of being better than other movies that have attempted something similar, like Hotel Artemis or Gunpowder Milkshake.

Where Bullet Train actively succeeds though is with its main draw, Brad Pitt, whose performance as Ladybug, a criminal with a conscience, is a hoot to watch navigate the world around him. Drawn into the plot by chance, and given the simple task of finding a briefcase on the titular bullet train, Ladybug attempts to conquer violence with a newly-developed, therapy-fueled lease on life. It's the only thing in the film as a whole that feels new and fresh, and makes this character one you could build a franchise around.

Rather than being stuck in the mold of a slick, kill-you-with-anything assassin like other Wick-sploitation rip-offs (ironic since this is directed by Wick co-creator David Leitch), Pitt walks the tightrope of playing the dimwits that he specializes in while also selling the fact that sometimes he gets lucky in a fight. In a film that feels like it wanted to make a Kill Bill's "House of Blue Leaves" sequence entirely on a train, Pitt seems to be playing a character better suited for a Coen Brothers or Soderbergh title, which... actually works in its favor. He's having fun and is charming; too bad he's in the wrong movie.

Pitt is flanked in the film by a huge ensemble cast, some who get the chance to really spread their wings and show off as performers while others feel relegated to barebones cameos that makes you wonder why they even bothered bringing them in. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry fit the former category, playing the assassin pair of Tangerine and Lemon. Though they feel like a certain style of rehashed hitman in practice, in execution the pair are able to embody them with humor and heart that helps keep the movie going, even if its editing is so slickly put together that it's sometimes like trying to keep track of spaghetti noodles in a boiling pot.

Across the rest of the cast you have others like Benito A. Martínez Ocasio (Bad Bunny), Zazie Beetz, Logan Lerman, Masi Oka, and Karen Fukuhara, who all seem to be present just to put them in the trailer and on the poster. Some have more screen time than others, but there's a lot of wasting great talent in Bullet Train, and part of that seems to be in favor of building toward its preposterous climax. Andrew Koji and Hiroyuki Sanada are given two of the meatier roles, but still not enough real estate to make their characters, who are truly compelling, feel like they're integral to the story.

Almost everyone gets the own cool action scene or fight sequence, Pitt naturally appearing in the majority, and though necessity is the mother of invention, sometimes you just get people hitting each other. One sequence in particular, where Pitt and Henry fight in the train's quiet car, is perhaps its best, as the circumstances force the filmmaker to do something unique. In fact, the larger one-on-one fights featuring Pitt are fun to watch, but anything that becomes a group affair or requires multiple persons gets tiring and overly complicated. At least some of its quieter moments between fights are funny.

By the time the train ends its journey and you're walking out of the theater you'll feel entertained, exactly what summer blockbusters like this are designed to do. Maybe you'll throw a playful punch at a friend as you exit the theater, hum one of the many, MANY songs featured on Bullet Train's soundtrack while you wait in line at the bathroom. By the time you get to your car, though, you'll attempt to untangle the plot and its truly convoluted essence with your pals; maybe you'll realize that the cameos throughout were just distracting and didn't add much. When you get home, you will probably have forgotten what you just did for the past two hours. All you'll remember is that Brad Pitt was funny.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Bullet Train arrives in theaters on Friday, August 5.