An expensive, star-led, non-franchise action movie – which is a rare thing these days, and probably welcome even if it isn’t free of the snark common to director/stunt expert David Leitch’s contributions to the Fast and Deadpool franchises (and the irksome three-twists-too-many-to-care-about plotting that’s sabotaged his last essay in this form, Atomic Blonde). It features a few credited and uncredited bits from stars whose films Brad Pitt has contributed matey joke cameos to – and that air of tit-for-tat insiderness runs throughout, whether it be in co-opting the intricate structure of a Tarantino pasticeh narrative or expecting MCU-style applause as a familiar face pops up on screen.
Set on the famous Tokyo train, it’s a less muscular, engaging railway thriller than the less bloated Liam Neeson vehicle The Commuter, since it skips the realism tracks early and thus defuses possible suspense in favour of over-the-top ridiculousness. Ladybug (Pitt), an operator (basically a hitman, but he claims he doesn’t take assassination gigs) considering a change of career, is required by his offscreen handler (the voice of Sandra Bullock) to replace another guy on a simple mission – to ‘extract’ (ie: steal) a suitcase with a Thomas the Tank Engine sticker on the handle from a luggage rack on the bullet train. Also on board are a range of other crooked characters who have complicated history with a mob moss known as White Death (Michael Shannon) who has displaced a yakuza clan and taken over Tokyo in the deep backstory that has led to three generations of another family – Hiroyuki Sanada (who actually is as iconic as everyone here wants to be), Andrew Koji, and a kid in hospital after being shoved off a roof – being on the vengeance trail. Meanwhile, two other operators – Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor Johnson) – who bicker about Thomas the Tank Engine, were involved in a bloody and uncomical mass murder in Bolivia, and are big West Ham supporters (cue several covers of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’) are returning White Death’s useless kidnapped son (Logan Lerman) to him, though no one is sure why or if the old man really wants him back. Also in the mix are a scheming schoolgirl (Joey King), an assassin dressed as an anime character (Zazie Beetz), a stolen/escaped boomslang (highly venomous snake), a vengeance-seeking cartel killer in the bloodstained suit he wore to his unlucky wedding/massacre (Bad Bunny) and various cadres of masked, armed, killable goons.
It coasts for a while on unlikely reversals, manipulations, revelations of how characters connect, non sequitur flashbacks, anecdotes, asides and speeches, and a general air of bafflement as the dots are joined … but stages intense fights/stunts/coups in the confines of the train, which an inevitable last reel of crashes, demises, ironies and flip punchlines that mostly just lie there and bleed out. It’s insubstantial, entertaining in patches, and runs longer than a delayed Southern Rail service. It’s hard to take against, despite its routine special pleading on behalf of murderous psychopaths, but similarly difficult to warm up to, though Pitt is at his Pittiest spouting new age mantras between bloodbaths.