I have come upon a maxim that applies to films like Bullet Train: mindless is fine, brainless is not. I can go along with goofy, silly fun in action films so long as I know that it is goofy, silly fun and not meant to be anything else. Case in point: almost all the Fast and Furious films (even Tokyo Drift). Those are mindless: unapologetically silly but with an oddly delightful nature to them.
Brainless, conversely is when the premise not only is too outlandish for those watching the film, but also for those creating the film. It is when a film goes one step so over-the-top that instead of being good fun, it insults the audience. Case in point: F9, where seeing a Pontiac Fierro literally in outer space is mind-melting.
Bullet Train is brainless, shamelessly copying other styles, carrying a sickening sense of smugness through it all, and showing that it was a lot of fun for those in front of the camera but nowhere near as fun for those enduring this nightmare.
Various mishmashes of story eventually come together, so let us sort it out the best we can. Former hitman codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt) has found inner enlightenment and as such, hopes for a simple job that won't involve killing. His handler Maria has something simple: pick up a briefcase in Tokyo and deliver it to Kyoto.
This seemingly simple task is made much more complicated thanks to an international group of assassins who are connected to the briefcase. There are "twins" Lemon and Tangerine (Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Cockney hitmen who also have to deliver the briefcase in question as well as The Son (Logan Lerman). The Son is the son of White Death, a Russian who has taken over the Japanese Underworld. Unfortunately, The Son has been killed under their watch and the briefcase is missing.
Also involved is The Prince (Joey King), who dresses as an innocent girl in pink and who has connections with White Death as well. Then there are both The Wolf (Bad Bunny) and The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), assassins who are dispatched rather quickly. Murder and mayhem occur throughout, until both White Death and Maria reveal themselves, we find out who Carver (the man originally tasked with taking the briefcase) is and things devolve into lunacy.
It is curious that I have yet to see a more traditional Guy Ritchie film such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch but could identify that Bullet Train was trying to be like them, with a dash of Quinton Tarantino in terms of dialogue. I have seen Ritchie's two Sherlock Holmes films and was displeased with them. Yet I digress.
Bullet Train has a terrible smugness to it all, as if we were watching a joke that only the cast and crew found funny. It goes for the easy versus the clever. You have the "twins" who clearly look nothing alike and are stupid (why leave The Son completely alone and unprotected if he is a target?). You have the hitman who now goes on and on about inner peace and conflict resolution. You have the seemingly sweet girl who is really a vicious psychopath.
The cameos from Sandra Bullock, Channing Tatum and Ryan Reynolds all end up being more grating and pleasing. I'm sure it is a coincidence that Bullock, Tatum and Pitt recently appeared together in The Lost City, so one wonders if there was some kind of deal for the three to reappear so soon. It is interesting that Tatum's cameo showed two things about him.
One: he can't act. He never has in my opinion. Two: here and in This Is the End, Tatum seems to be the go-to guy for gay sex jokes. I do not know why, but there it is.
Reynolds does not say a single word in his cameo, just appears with his character's title emblazoned on the screen. Even in this blink and you miss moment, I find I simply dislike, maybe even detest Ryan Reynolds as a performer. An actor who once showed promise now does nothing but Deadpool, smirking his way across his filmography.
As I said, there is a certain smugness throughout Bullet Train. Perhaps the nadir is when Lemon and Tangerine have to take us back in a long montage to sort out exactly how many kills they have, feeling the need to address us directly to show how amused they are with things. Everyone involved is amused at what they think is funny, but I was rolling my eyes at all of it. Bad Bunny (billed as Benito A Martinez Ocasio) was there not to jump start a career, but to have a fun time being in a movie. His "The Wolf" added nothing to the overall story and he was bumped off rather quickly.
I figure it was to mask that he is not an actor. Zazie Beetz's performance, also to one scene, consisted of yelling "BITCH!" at the end of every sentence. Pitt was nothing here as Ladybug, forever bemoaning his bad luck. It is one thing to know what Bullet Train is going for in its performances, a collective cartoonishness that is meant to be amusing. About the only one I will grudgingly give credit to is Lerman, and that is only because I simply did not recognize him at all.
It is another when the overt silliness insults your intelligence. Just as a Pontiac Fierro in outer space is beyond stupid, Lemon hanging on to the back of a bullet train without falling off is equally so.
Part of the "mindless vs. brainless" level of film enjoyment involves whether you are open about the silliness. Mindless can be, but it stays clear of metacommentary. Brainless openly comments and pokes fun at itself, expecting you to join in. Bullet Train loves itself so much, it does not need my love.