'Bullet Train' a high-speed fail : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the new film Bullet Train, Brad Pitt plays an assassin hired to steal a briefcase from a pair of rival assassins played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry. Also in the mix are Andrew Koji, Joey King, Bad Bunny, and Hiroyuki Sanada. It's directed by David Leitch (Deadpool 2, Atomic Blonde, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw).

'Bullet Train' a high-speed fail

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

In the frenetic and bloody thriller "Bullet Train," Brad Pitt is the world's most unlucky assassin. He's aboard the world's fastest train to pull a simple heist with as little violence as possible. Problem is that the train is full of other assassins who are gunning for him and for each other.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

The film features a murderers' row of murderers, played by Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Bad Bunny, Joey King and Andrew Koji, among others. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Bullet Train" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Joining us today is NPR producer Mallory Yu. Hey, Mallory.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: Hey there.

WELDON: Also joining us is writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris.

CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: If I can't have another "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," I'll take a Chew Chew Bang Bang, Glen.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Nice. All right, so let's get to it. In "Bullet Train," Brad Pitt is a laid-back assassin codenamed Ladybug who's spent some time in therapy and won't shut up about it. He's hired to board a bullet train traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto and steal a briefcase from a pair of assassins codenamed Tangerine and Lemon, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry. They're on board to look after the son of a powerful crime lord.

Also in the mix are Andrew Koji as Kimura, who's being extorted by Joey King's ruthless Prince to do some dirty work for her. The great Hiroyuki Sanada plays Kimura's father. And there are several cameos the film wants to keep a surprise. The film is based on a 2010 novel by Kotaro Isaka. And it was directed by David Leitch, who's had an interesting career. He was a stuntman for many years, then co-directed "John Wick." Although, he wasn't credited for it. He went on to direct "Deadpool 2," "Atomic Blonde" and "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw." Chris Klimek, what do you make of "Bullet Train"?

KLIMEK: Look; not every train-based action movie can be "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory," OK?

WELDON: OK.

KLIMEK: I think we all know this. I wanted to like this more than I did. I will start with what I like about this movie. I like that almost the entire thing is on the train. We do begin with Brad Pitt in the train station on the phone with his handler. I like that it's so contained. He's already at the train station. He's about to leave. That is also why we get a lot of flashbacks - so many flashbacks, way too many flashbacks - and a lot of references to things happening off-screen. They wanted that sort of streamlined narrative, but without crafting a story that could be, you know, clearly, cleanly told in that way.

So we all sort of expected, like, a, you know, a martial arts melee from this, just knowing Leitch's provenance. I don't think what we knew is that this is another kind of, you know, post-post-modern, glib, you know, hipster assassins movie. And that thing has gotten pretty tired in the generation since Pulp Fiction. So I did not hate this movie. It certainly is not completely bland. But I just - I wanted to like it a lot more.

WELDON: OK. What about you, Mallory?

YU: I had fun while I was watching it. But the more that I kind of think about the movie and, you know, some of the details in it, I just kind of been growing colder and colder on it the more I think about it. I did have some reservations going in. But the cast is charming. There are certain moments that really - you know, that actually made me laugh. I liked the cast overall, like I said. Tangerine and Lemon, they just have such good chemistry with each other. And I really liked Aaron Taylor-Johnson's slow kind of unraveling of his character. Of course, the great Hiroyuki Sanada is a standout. But I wish he had been given much more to do and been made use of in a better way.

Like Chris, I don't think "Bullet Train" makes use of its train setting in as good a way as, you know, my favorite train movies, which are "Snowpiercer" and "Train To Busan." Like, in those movies, you felt like you were trapped on the train. And in those movies, you feel the dimensions of the train around you. In "Bullet Train," even though all the characters are on this train, I couldn't get a sense of where everyone was on the train, you know?

WELDON: Good point.

YU: Are they in a front car or a back car? And that kind of took me out because I kept thinking, like, wait; so how did this character come into contact with this character in this way? I will say, I wish there were more martial arts in this movie. With the whitewashing, which I will get into in a bit, it not only made me a little skeptical of the movie because it replaced Japanese characters with white characters or, you know, characters of other races - that wasn't really my issue. My issue was that with the whitewashing, they squandered some thematic opportunities that I saw and would have liked to have been teased out more explicitly. Other than that, you know, it's a fun air conditioner movie, as I like to say, you know, something that you watch because you want to sit in a dark theater for a little while.

WELDON: All right. A consensus is building of fun with caveats. Aisha, can you break the tie?

HARRIS: So...

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Maybe this is just true to my experience. But I remember being a kid in grade school. And there were these kids who always sat in the back of the bus because the back of the bus was the coolest place to be. And they would crack jokes all the time so that the whole bus could hear it. Sometimes they'd tease you if you were not in the back of the bus with them. And they thought they were so smart...

WELDON: (Laughter).

HARRIS: ...So witty, so cool because they were making all these jokes about "Austin Powers" and "South Park" and - blah, blah, blah. And they were smart alecks, but I wouldn't exactly call them smart. And that's how I feel about this movie. For me, I didn't actually mind the flashbacks. I kind of enjoyed the concept of this. As a murder mystery meets whodunit, meets, like, assassins duking it out, I kind of liked having the flashbacks, which told us sort of why each character was in this space and how they were connected and how they weren't connected. I didn't mind that so much. But for me, where it fell flat was the humor was just so sophomoric a lot of the times, or just not quite hitting the right notes.

But this was clearly trying to be smart and witty. In fact, there's a moment where Brad Pitt is, like, exhausted. And he, like, doesn't even bother. He's just like, yeah, insert something witty here. And it's like, yes, this is what that movie is trying to do. It's trying to be meta and self-aware. But it wasn't landing for me. And when you pair that with the brutal, brutal violence that's going on here, it's not for the faint of heart. And, like, I don't mind violence. I enjoy a lot of action movies. But what I think doesn't work for me here is that with something like "John Wick" or even "Nobody," that film from last year with Bob Odenkirk...

WELDON: Yep.

HARRIS: ...Those movies had a sense of humor, but they were sort of able to make that balance between the dark humor and the grotesque violence. We've seen the scene where two assassins are fighting it out, and then someone comes in and they have to, like, pause the moment and, like, pretend that nothing is happening. I've seen all this before, and I've seen it done better in other movies. And so for me, I wanted it to be a little bit smarter in terms of its humor to help balance out the violence we've just seen so much of at this point.

YU: Yeah. I think the movie thinks it's more clever than it actually is, and it thinks it's presenting something newer than it actually is. And I think maybe that's where some of that tone feels done and tired.

KLIMEK: If you've ever wanted to see the live-action "Itchy And Scratchy" cartoon...

HARRIS: Yeah.

KLIMEK: ...Watching "The Simpsons" - you know, it's like joke, joke, joke. But no, you're bleeding out of your eyeballs. You're bleeding out of your mouth.

HARRIS: There's literal bleeding out of eyeballs.

YU: Multiple times.

KLIMEK: Yeah. We have this mass casualty scene where an entire wedding party gets poisoned, and they're just vomiting blood. I mean, it is a horror movie. And the movie is like, ha, ha, ha, ha.

WELDON: Yeah. And that's what I think we're all keying into. I mean, I think this film's marketing department is doing the world a service by slapping the words from the director of "Deadpool 2" on every ad because many people who are going to see that and go, oh, that sounds fun; I'm going to check that out. And the fact, Aisha, that they've seen it before is a feature, not a bug.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: It's also doing a service to others - a cohort that I belong to - who are going to see that and think, yeah, I bet I know what that is. I don't know what that says about the state of action movies in America right now, but maybe the pendulum has swung, and now we're in the age of smug and smarmy - because as everybody's mentioned, the violence here is glib, and it's weightless, and it's played for yuks. And the characterizations here are no deeper than they need to be, which is wafer-thin. I mean, in terms of camera position and movement, it's stylish.

HARRIS: Yeah, very stylish.

YU: Like, it looks good.

WELDON: This is "Peacemaker," "Deadpool," "Transporter," "Crank," "Smokin' Aces"...

YU: Yeah.

WELDON: ..."Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels." What this is is a combination of ultraviolence with humor that comes from the de-escalation school of comedy, where something bloody and terrible and awful happens, and then the characters take a beat, and they go, not cool, bro, or, what, seriously? Or they start talking about something mundane like wasabi peas, and that's presented as a joke. This is knockoff Guy Ritchie, knockoff Tarantino. Now, to be fair, it delivers that. It does what it sets out to do. But I think, man, without honest-to-God movie stars here like Pitt and Henry and Taylor-Johnson, who, you know, never particularly impressed me before, but he's fun here - without them in this movie, this thing would disappear without a trace.

HARRIS: I mean, Brian Tyree Henry and Taylor-Johnson together were the best aspects of this, and they seemed like the most developed relationship out of all of them. Even though we do get other relationships later on, they felt very tacked onto the end and - as if like, oh, yes, we also have to include the Asian characters in this film.

WELDON: Yeah. Mallory, I want to give you a chance to follow up on your point. This movie is based on a Japanese novel. It's set in Japan. The cast, as we said, is American and British. And the few Japanese actors in it, Koji and Sanada, do get pushed to the side. This has led to accusations - whitewashing, Western washing. Now, we should also note that the author of the novel told The New York Times he's fine with it. He wants to see his work on the big screen. So take it away.

YU: You know, I really get that, and I appreciate it. The president of Sony, Sanford Panitch, said that opening it up gave them the chance to cast big stars, like Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt, and he also said, quote, "have it work on a global scale." And, you know, I will say that I did kind of like the worldbuilding implications of bringing in a character like Bad Bunny as the Wolf or seeing, you know, Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I kind of liked that opening up. That being said, the named Japanese characters, Kimura and the Elder, are sidelined. And as a result, their emotional arc - the only emotional arc in this movie, really - feels shoehorned in and unearned, despite Hiroyuki Sanada's best freaking efforts. Like, he is giving it his all.

WELDON: That's true.

YU: And it's still like, oof. There's just nothing there. I'd also like to point out - this is the thing that has made me more and more uncomfortable the more that I think about it. We see three Japanese women in this movie. One of them doesn't have a single line and exists just to be fridged, which is a term coined by comic writer Gail Simone to describe the tendency of male writers to kill female characters, specifically to further the emotional development of a male character. The second character doesn't have a single line and exists to be a silent but badass assassin/bodyguard. And then the third Japanese woman is the train hostess, who gets a few lines - oh, and she also gets punched across the face at one point because she happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you see blood spray from her face. And it's one of those blink-and-you-miss-it moments, but I didn't miss it.

WELDON: Yeah.

YU: And it just goes to show how even in a movie set in Japan, Asian women are still only seen as window dressing, as, like, part of the background. And over the last couple of years, that sits less and less right, especially because over the last couple of years, hate crimes against Asians rose dramatically. And portrayals, I think, of Asian women like in "Bullet Train," where they're just silent, they're just kind of in the background, they're just there, does contribute in some way to the dehumanization that Asian women face in real life and contributes to the danger that Asian women face in real life. I also get frustrated by it because I see a really easy way to sidestep this particular issue - by not whitewashing two specific characters, which I can't really talk about because that, I believe, would count as a spoiler. So I'll stop here.

WELDON: Those are excellent points. And I really appreciate you saying that. It is part and parcel with this film's approach to violence - the glibness, the surface level of it, how it is window dressing. And now, Chris, let's remove it from that context and just talk about the fight choreography. You are our fighty-fight (ph) expert here, and Mallory said you wanted to see more martial arts in this film. Can you tell this film was directed by a stunt man?

KLIMEK: No. You don't really get that. The Leitch advantage is kind of negated here. You know, he did make "Atomic Blonde." Charlize Theron has, a - like, a long - what certainly looks like a one-take fight in the stairwell in that movie that goes on for several minutes.

HARRIS: It's so great.

KLIMEK: And it's really impressive. Yeah, it's excellent.

HARRIS: Yeah.

KLIMEK: I even felt at several points like this movie was trying to goose that with the sound effects. And I mean, if you've ever seen uncut fight footage from a movie, like, it will look super fake to you. You know, you realize how much the sound mixer contributes later. You know, this was the first time where I felt like they were actually trying to compensate for something that they maybe didn't get on camera. Now, again, like, that is the kind of thing that you can overlook if the action is really great. And certainly we come to these films hoping to be thrilled, and the storytelling is secondary, although I still care about the storytelling. And I came to this movie, you know, hoping to be thrilled. I did not expect to be disappointed. And I got to say, you asked me to recap the plot of this movie. I think I understood more of "Tenet" the first time I saw it than I saw this.

WELDON: That's a...

HARRIS: Wow.

WELDON: ...Big swing.

YU: Yeah. The pacing of this was so stilted. It just kind of took you out of everything that was happening in the movie. I'd start getting kind of into the flow of things, and, like, something would happen, and I would be completely tossed out of the train almost.

WELDON: Yeah, I came out of it feeling that this was kind of dated - not only because a lot of the films it's riffing on that it's beholden to are 20-plus years old, but because Brad Pitt's whole running gag is, like, how often he busts out therapy speak. That's "Grosse Pointe Blank," that's "Analyze This," that's "The Sopranos." But this film delights in it as if it discovered it, as if it's cornering the market. And it almost gets there because Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt. But one of the things I was struggling with as I left the theater was why does this film leave me cold, but I love "Atomic Blonde," and I love "John Wick"? And I think the violence in those films, they're deeper. Like, we get an ice bath scene. We see how the violence in "Atomic Blonde" has repercussions. The violence in "John Wick" can get really comical - homicide by horse kick - but there's something underpinning it, undergirding it, and I don't think there is here.

HARRIS: I agree.

WELDON: Well, tell us what you think about "Bullet Train." Find us on Facebook @facebook.com/PCHH, or tweet us @PCHH. Up next, what is making us happy this week?

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week. What is making us happy this week? Chris, what's making you happy this week?

KLIMEK: Well, I'm always complaining that the wrong movies, in the last generation, got turned into franchises, Glen. And I think the people at the Criterion Collection agree with me because they have finally brought out Carl Franklin's wonderful "Devil In A Blue Dress" in a 4K edition.

WELDON: Oh yeah.

KLIMEK: You know, there are, I think, more than a dozen of Walter Mosley's novels in this Easy Rawlins detective series, which follows a Black World War II veteran, Easy Rawlins. He's played by Denzel in the film, which is from 1995, who sort of falls into becoming a private detective. It's not anything that he goes looking for, but he turns out to have a talent for it. And this is a way for Mosley to look at race relations in - both in that time and through subsequent decades, because this character ages through the subsequent novels. And I just keep thinking, like, how great it would have been for Denzel and the director, Carl Franklin, to get together every three or four years and do another one of these from then to now. I would love that so much, but we only got the one - really, really wonderful movie, and it looks spectacular in the new 4K Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. So it is the film that should have been a franchise, "Devil In A Blue Dress."

HARRIS: Amen.

WELDON: Thank you very much, Chris Klimek. Mallory Yu, what is making you happy this week?

YU: What's making me happy is "Evil." It's the show on Paramount Plus. It's a psychological mystery that follows a female psychologist and a priest in training - played by Mike Colter, who you'll know from "Luke Cage" - and their kind of skeptic tech dude. And the three of them are hired by the Catholic Church to investigate possessions, demons, demonic possessions, things like that - evil in the world. It's kind of like a police procedural but without the cops. So if you like kind of the format of mystery of the week, monster demon of the week, this is a good show. And it tows the line between being skeptical of all the supernatural stuff that's happening in the show while also giving you just enough plausible, like, this could happen, could it be demons? I highly recommend. It's "Evil" on Paramount Plus.

WELDON: Thank you very much, Mallory. Aisha Harris, what's making you happy this week?

HARRIS: Well, my happy this week comes from my old stomping grounds over at Slate. It is a collection of the best fictional character deaths. And this spans everything from books, movies, TV, comics, theater. And it's really fun to read. You've got everything from the samurai in "Rashomon" to the Wicked Witch of the West, although there's no Mufasa, which I find quite striking. It's a fun read. And there's also a couple of additional articles, including one that lists the top five best gangster, mobster movie deaths. So that is the best fictional deaths over at Slate.

WELDON: Thank you very much, Aisha Harris. That is a great read. And that does dip very heavily into theater, which I thought was really interesting and a really nice approach. What's making me happy this week? I watched over the weekend a 2017 film that got some good write-ups at the time, but it just missed me for some reason. It's called "You Were Never Really Here," in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a mercenary hired to rescue a politician's daughter who's been caught up in a trafficking ring. It's an action movie, I guess you'd say. It's a thriller. But it's not as lurid or as cheesy as the plot would suggest. It's not "Taken." It's directed by the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. She did "We Need To Talk About Kevin." So like that film, it's about the lingering wounds that violence leaves in the world, how it ripples out. It's plenty violent, but it doesn't delight in that violence, and it takes a while to realize she doesn't really show you the violence itself. She focuses on the aftermath. That's "You Were Never Really Here," which is streaming all over the damn place, really. And that is what is making me happy this week. If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations, sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.

And that brings us to the end of our show. Chris Klimek, Mallory Yu, Aisha Harris, thanks to all of you for being here.

YU: Always a pleasure.

KLIMEK: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

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WELDON: This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and Taylor Washington, and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. Special thanks to Barclay Walsh and Susie Cummings. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all next week.

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