Take six hit men. Give each one a code name. Put them on a high-speed Japanese train. Also place on board a case with $10 million in it. Add lots (and lots) of violence, with a thick coating of general jokiness. You know, brutal people making quips about their brutality. There you pretty much have “Bullet Train.” It’s high concept on rails.
That description leaves out the most important fact about the movie: It stars Brad Pitt. He’s one of the hit men, though in a good-guy sort of way. You know he’s a good guy because he’s Brad Pitt. If that weren’t enough, his code name is Ladybug.
“Bullet Train” is not without its virtues. The level of narrative trickeration is impressive — Zak Okewicz adapted Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel, “Maria Beetle” — until it becomes fatiguing. Sandra Bullock, heard as Ladybug’s handler on the other end of his cellphone, has a winning chemistry with Pitt. She’s part Siri, part Alexa, part fairy godmother. Channing Tatum, last seen a few months ago with Bullock and Pitt in “The Lost City,” has an amusing cameo. Blink and you might miss how a photograph of Ryan Reynolds resolves a plot point. Which is more fun: Seeing white hair on Brian Tyree Henry (he’s one of the hit men, code name Lemon) or hearing him do an English accent? Michael Shannon’s hair is kind of wild, too, though not as wild as his Russian accent. Waiter, give that man an order of borscht with his ham.
The movie’s chief virtue, by far, is Pitt. He turns 60 next year. With age has come an ease on screen that only his pal George Clooney can currently match. Pitt’s at his most movie-star appealing here: relaxed, self-aware, nicely self-deflating. “You’re getting the new and improved me,” Ladbybug tells his handler. “I’m experiencing a calm like never before. Never.” A running joke is Ladybug seeking Zen composure and failing to attain it. Part of what makes the joke so funny about the character is that the actor has so clearly gotten there.
Pitt’s presence makes a borderline-odious piece of work watchable. Watchable, though not necessarily palatable: A subplot involving an imperiled child — worse, an imperiled hospitalized child — is fairly reprehensible.
In most respects, “Bullet Train” is your basic sub-Tarantino stylized nastiness. It’s slick and arch and the violence comes with a smirk. People are dispatched by automatic weapons, knife, samurai sword, motor vehicle, suffocation, reptile venom (snake on a train? right, snake on a train), a handgun-adjacent child’s stuffed animal. People get decapitated, beheaded, you name it. The dispatching tends to be bloody, too. At “Bullet Train” screenings, forget butter on your popcorn. Go for the hemoglobin.
There’s even killing in the quiet car. The train here puts the Acela to shame; it’s almost as enjoyable to look at as Pitt. But at least Amtrak maintains a higher standard of passenger behavior.
“Bullet Train” is directed by David Leitch. His bona fides for proficiently impersonal movie action are unquestioned: “Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2,” the “Fast & Furious” spinoff “Hobbs & Shaw.” Can you tell he started as a stuntman? The more ridiculous the action gets, the cleaner the presentation becomes. Whether this helps or hurts is for each viewer to decide. The one thing to be said for sub-Tarantino is that it makes you appreciate the actual article that much more.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Henry’s partner, Tangerine. As my friend Ty points out, their act is sub-Martin McDonagh. Who knew you could take a bullet train to Bruges? Joey King’s Prince shows that hit man isn’t a gender-specific profession. She’s even more annoying than the role calls for. Bad Bunny is Wolf, hit man number five. The identity of the final hit man is one of the movie’s nicer surprises, so leave things at that. Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji are a father and son who play an increasingly influential role in the working out of events. Especially formidable, Sanada could hold his own in a Kurosawa film.
Wait: Kurosawa, bullet train, ransom? Surely, Isaka had in the back of his mind “High and Low.” That 1963 film includes the transfer of a ransom via bullet train that’s one of the great sequences in that great director’s great career. Yes, that’s a lot of greats, but it’s Akira Kurosawa we’re talking about.
All right, it’s August, and “Bullet Train” would seem to check a lot of summer-movie boxes. But if after all that hemoglobin-covered popcorn your appetite for Japan and bullet trains remains unsatisfied, consider streaming “High and Low.” It’s available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, the Criterion Channel, and HBO Max. The train isn’t as fast, and there’s no Brad Pitt. But it does have Toshiro Mifune, and instead of offering sub-Tarantino and skim-milk Martin McDonagh, it’s primo Kurosawa. Which makes it just the ticket.
Directed by David Leitch. Written by Zak Olkewicz; based on the novel “Maria Beetle,” by Kôtarô Isaka. Starring Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Bad Bunny. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 126 minutes. R (strong and bloody violence, pervasive language, brief sexuality). In English, Japanese, Spanish, and Russian, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.