This film got a bad rap in reviews, and I suspect it’s because BULLET TRAIN is that rarity in action films: it’s for writers and actors. It’s all about structure, in a very defined way.
Chekhov’s gun is a writing principle that states that everything in a story should be there for a reason. Chekhov’s famous example is that if we’re told a rifle is hanging on the wall in chapter one, then someone needs to fire it in chapter two, otherwise why tell us there’s a rifle there? Chekhov tells us not to waste time with details that aren’t important. Talk about only what is in service to the story, no matter how irrelevant it may seem at the start.
Pretty much everything we see (and hear) in BULLET TRAIN is there for a reason. Every detail fairly quivers with potential energy after a while, when we start to realise what’s being done, and we wonder what’s next to explode.
It’s based on a novel I haven’t read, MARIA BEETLE by Kotaro Isaka, so I can’t speak to how faithful the treatment by screenwriter Zak Olkewicz is. Obviously, one assumes that almost all the original characters were Japanese, though Isaka himself contests that, and a big international adaptation means characters become international visitors to Japan. My biggest takeaway was how odd it is, in a way we can usually only get away with in books or graphic novels. If you came for a film by a JOHN WICK director (David Leitch) and got a mini-chapter about the adventures of a water bottle (!), you too might get a bit moody about it.
Brad Pitt has a whale of a time. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is currently one of the best “supporting” actors of his generation – look how completely convincing he is in TENET – and Brian Tyree Henry pulls off a pretty good English accent as an assassin obsessed with Thomas The Tank Engine. Nobody in this film looks like they’re not having fun. Pretty much everything in the script slots together so neatly that every scene is its own set-piece., the bridges between them held up by Pitt as a hitman with anxiety puking his trauma out to Sandra Bullock over the phone. Immensely enjoyable, and enjoyed, performances with a script that’s all about structure, revelation, surprise and clicking over a very carefully designed maze of dominoes.
It’s really worth a watch, just to see how they do it.
BULLET TRAIN seems to be available on all formats.