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Bullet Train is a violent movie with a lot of soul.

Murder on the Tokyo Express

Brad Pitt is the Ladybug
Brad Pitt is the Ladybug

Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s overly self-indulgent 4-hour Kill Bill saga could be made. They could and some of them are fair; there are plenty of similarities in a few of the themes and styles manically bouncing around all over the place.

But that’s only one take. It’s more fun to think of Bullet Train as Agatha Christie meets John Wick. Well, maybe if Christie were strung out on the seven percent solution.

While Kill Bill focused on The Bride’s quest for revenge and layered in all sorts of martial arts and manga influences, Bullet Train plays out as a guessing game. Everyone on board the titular fast train is up to something. The whats and whys unfold during the course of the movie’s suitably rapid-paced 2 hours.

Like the characters in Kill Bill, each of the characters here has a codename. But, Kill Bill can hardly be credited as the originator of such a concept. That’s spy game table stakes.

The one character who would seemingly be the equivalent of a protagonist in a more straightforward narrative would be Ladybug. Um, that’s Brad Pitt’s character. Ladybug’s been through a lot and — ostensibly — has been in Japan making peace with himself as an assassin in reform. Donning black, thick-rimmed eyeglasses, a goofy sun hat, longish hair and some gray in his Van Dyke, Ladybug reassures himself with various mantras. “Put peace out in the world, get peace back.”

Ladybug’s been tasked with what should be a simple mission: get on the train, grab a suitcase, get off the train.

But nothing’s ever that easy. No matter how much peace you put out in the world.

Snake on a Train

There are eight primary characters (plus a deadly boomslang snake) in Bullet Train, each with their own ulterior motives that transcend going from point A to point H. It’s a satire and an action caper all tied together with a complicated storyline involving this diverse cast of characters that become interconnected in some form or fashion.

Every character has a backstory, of course, and that’s what propels Bullet Train as a really fun ride. This is the kind of cleverly crafted filmmaking that is fun to watch and it’s the kind of clever storytelling in which even a seemingly innocent bottle of water has a backstory. It’s all told with the wild flair of director David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde) and it’s most certainly in the vein of the new, colorful and irreverent mindset driving action movies like the John Wick saga.

The machinations are far-reaching, but at the core of the story is the manipulation around a young boy who was pushed off the rooftop of a department store in Tokyo, leaving him severely injured and under treatment in a hospital. From there, Bullet Train picks up some of the usual suspects, both in terms of characters and themes.

A primary theme revolves around family ties and the senses of duty and honor such relationships generate. Was the boy’s father negligent by not being there to protect his son? Well, that father is one of the passengers and he becomes one of the reasons why it can be said this violent (very violent) movie also has a surprising amount of soul, even as some of that soul is served up in a satirical fashion. Concepts of zen and karma are poked and prodded, but it would’ve been even better had they been taken seriously and used as a proper value system with which all the mayhem could’ve been wrapped.

Lost in Translation

Joey King is the Prince
Joey King is the Prince

Bullet Train is based on a Japanese novel by Kotaro Isaka and it seems safe to say Brad Pitt would not be the obvious pick for the lead character. This is a Japanese story that has not only been put through the grinder of translating into English, but also the daunting challenge of translating from page to screen. The result oh so certainly metes out some calculations to make Bullet Train an experience with international cinematic appeal.

Pitt’s the token American in this story. Other characters are Japanese, British, Russian and Mexican. As the backstories surface to enlighten the contemporary action, the action spans the globe, offering a diversity of locations that conveniently allow the narrative to frequently hop on and off the closed confines of the train.

But it’s interesting — even head-scratching — to consider how some of the characters have been transformed. There are the “twins,” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Yeah. It’s an awkward pairing for twins who are most obviously not. But, unlike the ludicrous take on brotherhood in Michael Bay’s abysmal Ambulance earlier this year, Tangerine and Lemon at the least have a very well-intentioned and long-standing familial bond. Even so, it’s likely not where Isaka was going with the pair.

And there’s the Prince. This time the Prince is a pretty girl played by Joey King, who is indeed most definitely a very pretty girl. Names and genders clearly have no meaning in Bullet Train. Pitt’s a ladybug, King’s a prince.

But, against all odds, the audience is still a winner.

As the action escalates and the plot thickens, more codenames hop on board. The Father, the Elder, the White Death, the Wolf, the Hornet. Each one is well defined, which becomes a part of the impressive climactic action that ties it all together.

Throw in a little karma, to boot.

The Quiet Car

Sitting comfortably next to the satire is a generous sense of humor that is pure Hollywood. As part of that, Bullet Train features a few really cool cameos. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a very happy surprise for all is spoiled in the movie’s own commercials.

Sandra Bullock.

She’s Maria (not much of codename, that one) and she’s Ladybug’s handler. Throughout the movie, Ladybug’s in communication with her; status updates, counseling, instructions. And, in the end, when Maria and Ladybug meet face to face, it’s a fun movie moment that purely through the serendipity of movie magic picks up the fun vibe of seeing Pitt and Bullock in The Lost City. In that one, the tables are turned with Pitt being the surprise cameo while Bullock was the star.

And, well, there are a couple other cameos. Like all those characters on the bullet train, those cameos have a great interconnectedness across various productions. But, at least here, their identities will remain a mystery.