Such a scene would of course be completely unbelievable in Germany: Brad Pitt and a killer are stalking each other at the open door of a train that is standing in the station. Pitt casually glances at his watch. Then, just before the full minute, he pushes his opponent off the train.
A second later, the door closes automatically and the train departs. The killer lies stunned on the platform and sees Pitt grimacing triumphantly behind the train window. Pitt carefully timed his actions in Bullet Train to ensure the punctuality of the Shinkansen, Japan's legendary express train.
On any other rail system, even the relatively punctual Swiss, the killer could have gotten to his feet and stormed back onto the train; in Germany he would even have had enough time to have a double cappuccino at the mobile coffee bar and then leisurely stroll back to the compartment.
Not so in Bullet Train. In the action film of the year, punctuality, politeness and maintaining form play a major role. In another scene, Pitt and another hitman are engaged in another life-or-death struggle - when the connecting compartment door opens and a friendly saleswoman rolls in her cart.
"Refreshment anyone?" she asks the two of them. They have politely stopped fighting to let her pass.
Brad Pitt is not averse to mineral water, his duel partner even pays for him. After the drink nudge has continued, Pitt throws the bottle at the opponent's head as a sign of reopening hostilities. No sign of thanks for the invitation.
That sounds like comedy. Is "Bullet Train" too. Apart from the many fists, knives, pistols and poisonous snakes that are constantly in use.
Trains are grateful locations for crime thrillers and action movies. The space, the time, the speed are clearly defined parameters. And the attraction is to use their limits, to stretch them, to blast them. Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" is always cited as a prime example of this. But the ancestor of "Bullet Train" is more of an early Hitchcock film: "A Lady Disappears".
With Alfred Hitchcock, there are two quintessentially British guys on the train, Mr. Caldicott and Mr. Charters, who know only one topic of conversation: cricket. Bullet Train also has such a British comedy couple, Mr. Lemon and Mr. Tangerine. They, too, deal with a ur-British theme, namely Thomas the Tank Engine.
Brian Tyree Henry's Mr. Lemon divides all of humanity into types from the "Thomas" stories, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Mr. Tangerine gets really annoyed by it. Unlike Caldicott
Actually, you realize that after half an hour at the latest, almost everyone on the Shinkansen is a killer with some job, even the giant rubber momomon, otherwise peaceful toys in TikTok. And everyone is connected to everyone else in some way, even if the killers themselves are not aware of this, and we viewers are certainly not aware of it.
Part of the brilliance of Bullet Train lies in the way the film uncovers the backstory bit by bit. The short flashbacks that introduce the characters are particularly successful. It has become common to give interesting characters from successful films their own spin-offs; here one has the feeling of witnessing the reverse process, with everyone stepping out of their own movie and boarding the Shinkansen.
Basically everything in "Bullet Train" is state of the art: the hyper-neon aesthetics, what the fight choreographers bring out of the narrow space, how action is comedyized, how director David Leitch - last film: "Deadpool 2" - the plot threads gradually merges. And, most importantly, Bullet Train's attitude toward its own genre, the action film.
The action film has long since outgrown the Stallone and Van Damme shoes, where everything depended on the explosiveness of the spectacle. The action film has grown up, and that means self-reflecting, and the trick today is not to let the fun of the Kaboom suffer from sheer reflection.
Brad Pitt is the quintessential 21st-century action hero, battle-hardened and fit but in no way aggressive or belligerent, unlucky enough to wear glasses and a cap that looks like an upside-down bucket. With his command officer in the ear (whom we only get to see at the end and who turns out to be Sandra Bullock), he changes mantra sayings from the textbook of esotericism, which the film happily lets pulverize a little later from reality.
Bullet Train is a fine example of how films that Hollywood formulates from the drawing board can still change their character quite a bit on the long way to the finished film - for the better. The film adaptation of a novel by Japanese crime writer Kōtarō Isaka was originally planned as a straight-forward action thriller - but took on completely new dimensions in terms of location and editing.
What remained was the internationalization that Hollywood demands for a big-name film. What was originally a purely Japanese gathering of killers became a colorful mix of Japanese, Americans, British and Latin Americans. Hollywood has once again been accused of not casting ethnically correct characters, but the colorful mix is obviously good for this story (and the core, which is gradually defoliating, remains quintessentially Japanese).
Former stuntman David Leitch is no Quentin Tarantino. Nevertheless, in the quarter century that has passed since "Pulp Fiction", one has not seen a hitman film that combines cynicism and comedy, tradition and zeitgeist and a perfect sense of timing like "Bullet Train". And it's also good to see a punctual, not overcrowded train once again.