If you’ve seen Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, or Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, you’ll recognize David Leitch’s style of filmmaking. He focuses on hyperkinetic action and flamboyant violence with a heaping dose of smartass humor—a flashy showcase that often obliterates such niceties as story, motivation, and characterization. A former stuntman who doubled for Brad Pitt in years gone by, Leitch has borrowed heavily from the playbooks of Guy Ritchie, Quentin Tarantino, and Timur Bekmambetov, among others. Call it style over substance. Screen writer Zak Olkewicz used a Japanese book as his source material.
There is a premise, but it’s played mostly for laughs, even though the wildly exaggerated violence is sometimes too startling to shrug off. Brad Pitt is a professional assassin whose unseen supervisor speaks to him through an earpiece. His job is to retrieve a hard-shell briefcase filled with money that one of the designated bad guys has brought aboard the bullet train in Tokyo. Naturally, the villains are a clever and colorful lot. What’s more, there are other suspicious characters on the train who figure in a larger and messier crime arena. All of this is in service of an innocent boy who rests in a hospital room; it is his grandfather (the imposing Hiroyuki Sanada) who sets the wheels in motion for the plot.
Cameo appearances by some well-known actors add to the feeling that none of this is meant to be taken seriously, except by hard-core aficionados of stunt work, editing, and use of CGI. (The actors never left the Sony lot in Culver City.)
Pitt is in relaxed, likable mode from start to finish, and costars Joey King, Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Michael Shannon wring what meager results they can from the screenplay. Bullet Train is never boring, and it certainly moves, but it’s like an overdose of action moviemaking: much sound and fury, signifying nothing. This should’ve been more fun.