Fate. Karma. Luck. Do such intangible forces truly govern the trajectory of human existence? Or is our suffering simply the result of random chance?
This is the question at the center of David Leitch’s Bullet Train, a relentlessly dumb action movie with an surprising degree of thematic ambition. The plot, a variation on the Smokin’ Aces formula, revolves around a rogues' gallery of mercenaries and assassins fighting over—what else?—a briefcase full of money. But is it really a coincidence that all of these hardened criminals happened to board the same Kyoto-bound Shinkansen?
Hopelessly adrift amidst the chaos is Brad Pitt’s “Ladybug,” a semi-retired soldier of fortune attempting to make amends for his violent past by… well, by basically adopting a positive attitude, no matter how badly the world shits on him. Despite his stubborn refusal to pick up a gun and his foolish insistence on resolving every conflict through diplomacy, he always manages to survive the mayhem by the skin of his teeth—often at the cost of his opponents' lives, much to his chagrin.
The worst part, of course, is that—like Clerks’ Dante—Ladybug wasn’t even supposed to be here today; the guy that was originally offered the “easy snatch-and-grab job” called out sick, leaving our hapless hero entangled in an elaborate drama (one that involves multiple vendettas and needlessly convoluted conspiracies) in which he ultimately lacks a legitimate role to play. He’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time—like the unfortunate innocent bystander that, in one of the film’s many (excessively prolonged) flashbacks, learns exactly why you shouldn’t stand too close to an overturned car after a John Woo style shootout.
Bullet Train isn’t the best example of the remarkably robust “Carnival of Killers” subgenre—rather than developing a visual and structural identity of his own, Leitch instead chooses to shallowly mimic Quentin Tarantino, Guy Richie, and Robert Rodriguez—but it remains an entertaining enough diversion. And at least it has something to say.
It isn’t particularly articulate, but I’m willing to award points for effort.