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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024