People who rabbit on about "high speed rail" all the time conveniently forget to mention the hitman problem. In rail-happy Japan, we now learn, passengers are more likely to encounter a knife in the neck or a swat in the chops with a metal attaché case than to arrive safely at their destination. Some wretched souls have been found with tears of blood running down their lifeless cheeks and nothing more is ever heard about them. There are also snakes, somehow. These shocking facts are finally acknowledged in Bullet Train, the new Brad Pitt movie, although the number of viewers able to make heads or tails of the story they tell is likely to be severely limited.
Pitt is our eyes and ears here: a onetime assassin, code name Ladybug, who is transitioning from all-killer-all-the-time to a gentler, more thoughtful sort of operative, the kind who finds a use for phrases like "the toxicity of anger." We meet him wandering around Tokyo's late-night yakitori district with a look of amiable bewilderment on his face and a cheap bucket hat tugged down on his head. He's just received a new assignment from his faraway controller, Maria (Sandra Bullock), who lives in his earpiece. The job: Get onboard the next Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto, find and secure a certain briefcase, and get back off. Sounds simple.
No way, of course. Ladybug quickly realizes he's not the only killer at large on the hurtling conveyance. For example, there's a pair of thugs, called Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), guarding the MacGuffin itself, which turns out to be filled with cash—the property of a gangster who provided it as ransom for his abducted son, and who is now recalling it since the abductors, thanks to Lemon and Tangerine, no longer have any need of it. There's also a bratty Brit schoolgirl called Prince (the neck-knife specialist, played by Joey King), a seething Mexican assassin called The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny), an American hitwoman who styles herself The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), and, hovering high above the whole mess, a masked Russian crime lord called The White Death (Michael Shannon, fearlessly weird).
The story, drawn from a bestselling 2010 novel by Kōtarō Isaka, isn't just insanely complicated. It's insanely complicated in the sadistic-hipster manner pioneered by Quentin Tarantino 30 years ago and ripped off over and over and over again ever since. Fortunately, the director, David Leitch—who has roots in the John Wick franchise, and who also directed Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2 (and once stunt-doubled for Pitt in movies like Fight Club and Mr. & Mrs. Smith)—has his own live-wire gift for action filmmaking. And since Bullet Train consists of nothing but action—the characters amount to little more than their cute names and the plot is incomprehensible until you're well past the point of caring—he's able to pull us along as the katana fights and blood geysers spill from one end of the train to the other, pausing for an occasional bathroom break, a bit of accidental neck-snapping, some clever mayhem in the "quiet car," or a few minutes of hello-goodbye cameoing for a famous pal or two.
Nobody can be having more fun in all of this than Brad Pitt, who exudes both an easy warmth and deep chill in equal measures. At age 58, he is the Elder Dude of interesting movies, his twinkly charm undimmed and still irresistible. It's too bad the movie has little else on its mind than virtuoso action scenes. They're great and all, but as Pitt's character says at one point, "I just wanna get off this train and go see a Zen garden or some shit."