After years of being the leading man (and surely more to come), Brad Pitt has settled nicely into his glory days of being an ace character actor. It started with his role as a steely stuntman in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (which earned him a much-deserved Oscar), continued with a cameo as a silly secret agent in “The Lost City” and now he finds himself aboard a wild ride as a goofy assassin in the middle of an existential crisis.
Pitt does a killer job as the center of a wacky group of colorful characters in the action comedy “Bullet Train” (★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday). Director David Leitch (“Deadpool 2”) again showcases his penchant for insane fight scenes, although the narrative overall isn’t quite up to the snuff of the fisticuffs and gunplay, and the tone is too often stuck between “John Wick”-style seriousness and “Clue”-esque absurdity. But Pitt is game for just diving in and letting loose – as well as getting stabbed, punched, bitten and thrown around like a rag doll – as a steadying presence when the film purposefully goes off the rails.
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Ladybug (Pitt) is a hard-luck guy who needs a win badly – he’s thinking about giving peace more of a chance, trying to change his life for the better but can’t even score a good code name – when his handler Maria ( Sandra Bullock) tasks him to get on a high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto, grab a briefcase and get off.
Nothing in Ladybug’s life is easy-peasy, however, and a bunch of other assassins also get on for various assignments that become more and more connected as the plot zooms forward and everybody tries to murder each other.
Among the strangers on this train he meets: the British “twins” Tangerine (Aaron Taylor Johnson), a stylish cockney type, and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s really into “Thomas the Tank Engine”; a conniving young sociopath known as the Prince (Joey King); the Wolf (Bad Bunny), a Mexican outlaw out for revenge; and Kimura (Andrew Koji), a father intent on finding the evil soul who tried to hurt his son. (Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper who’s dabbled in pro wrestling, doesn’t get a lot to do here but he has the charisma and the moves to be a future action star.)
Throw in a mysterious Russian mobster, one venomous reptile, a bunch of starry cameos and subplots fitting a little too neatly together, and “Bullet Train” begins to feel quite loaded down. Given its premise and title, you’d expect a zippy movie with some momentum, yet too many flashbacks and a surprising amount of chattiness in the overlong film slows everything down – at least until a crazy albeit satisfying finale where Leitch pretty much cuts the brakes. and lets chaos take the wheel.
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Some characters have too little screen time, others wear out their welcome. And “Bullet Train” doesn’t make the most of its Asian locale, offering some covers of hit songs (including “Holding Out for a Hero”) and a few J-pop influences; it feels weirdly Western and afraid of being too over the top. Thankfully, the movie features Japanese movie legend Hiroyuki Sanada in a standout supporting role as the sword-wielding Elder, who gives Ladybug a few things to ponder heading into the movie’s final act.
Pitt’s character is central to the film’s larger themes – surrounded by bad luck and nutty coincidences, Ladybug feels he and his fellow hired guns are all “agents of fate” as part of his larger “What am I even doing here?” mindset – and its interestingly claustrophobic action sequences. That said, he also fits enjoyably into an ensemble of personalities in a summer that at least is never dull, where even a snake on a train gets a chance to overshadow a Hollywood A-lister.