starring Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Sandra Bullock
screenplay by Zak Olkewicz, based on the book by Kôtarô Isaka
directed by David Leitch
by Walter Chaw I have so many thoughts about David Leitch's Bullet Train, and I don't think a single one of them coheres with any of the other ones. This is most likely a product of general exhaustion, or a lifetime misspent on excess consumption of media colliding now in middle-age with my becoming somehow the go-to for Amer-Asian-splaining of representational issues in American cinema. Like the whole "whitewashing" thing going on around Bullet Train, which is based on a popular Japanese novel by Kôtarô Isaka, who is pleased people like Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry are in this big-budget Hollywood adaptation because it raises his profile internationally. Sony Pictures, whose parent company is Japanese, has already come out saying the same stupid shit about how much they wanted to honour the Japanese source material by hiring the best actors for the project--who happen to be Not Japanese--while Asian-Americans are rightfully outraged about the same stupid shit because of how much damage this ingrained corporate "wisdom" continues to wreak on the Asian-American community. If we continue to pull on this thread, we find Isaka has stolen the entire premise and execution of his book from Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino, who, as we know, have stolen their things from British New Wave gangster flicks on the one hand, Asian cinema on the other--Asian cinema that has its roots in, what, Kurosawa? Whose favourite filmmaker was John Ford? And who was ripped off by Italian guy Sergio Leone, who was ripped off by Sam Peckinpah, who was ripped off by Hong Kong legend John Woo, who was ripped off by everybody for a while there. There's a scene in Bullet Train where Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry, both playing hitmen, fight each other in tight quarters that is awfully reminiscent of Jackie Chan. Another scene recalls Louis Leterrier, who probably learned it from Jet Li--and neither Chan nor Li is Japanese, of course.
It's a fucking mess. In an interview with the NEW YORK TIMES, Isaka doesn't see a problem. Which isn't a surprise, since he's not a minority in Japan and having your book turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt is a good thing. For Asian-Americans, it's more complicated. We would like an adaptation of a Japanese novel to feature Asian faces. And to be fair, Bullet Train does. There's Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji, for starters, and Michael Shannon doing what I believe is a Japanese accent, although it might be a Russian accent or, like, Alabaman, I don't know. (He's playing the role David Carradine would have and did play when he was still alive.) But Isaka's novel is Japanese, so what do we do with a colonized property that is itself the product of a mélange of osmotic cultural diffusion? I had the same thoughts about the live-action Ghost in the Shell and the hullabaloo surrounding its casting of Scarlett Johansson--a hullabaloo that generally ignored the complex history of representation in anime itself in addition to Japan's relationship with self-image post-WWII/American occupation. Having a Japanese mind in a white body in that film is fascinating; Emily Yoshida wrote about it brilliantly in this article and I can't improve on it, so I won't even try. I think controversy likes simplicity because anger tends to dissipate in the cold water of complication. I don't know what to say about the whitewashing issues in Bullet Train because I'm not sure that's what's happening with characters who, if not already familiar from stuff like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, are familiar from decades of yakuza and twilight samurai flicks--a different sort of stereotype that does Asian-Americans no favours. Representation can't just be, "Okay, let's throw in some badass yakuza, missing fingers and shit, and how about they still use samurai swords, dude? High five!" I mean...okay, that's one thought.
Watching this thing, I was reminded of that old Catskills-era joke where two old guys are having a conversation. One complains he can't shit or piss anymore without pain and strain, and the other says he has no issues with that. Every morning at 6 a.m. on the dot, he shits like a champion, and at 6:30, he pisses like a racehorse. The problem, he says, is he doesn't get up until 8. The reason this occurred to me is that Bullet Train is over after 90 minutes but keeps going for another half-hour, which is time enough to introduce two huge jokey cameos that then remind me of how Brad Pitt showed up in a jokey cameo in Leitch's Deadpool 2. Here, Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool himself, returns the favour in a role that may or may not be the same character he plays in the Hitman's Bodyguard cinematic universe, which causes me to think about how something like that has a universe. I was reminded, too, of how Zazie Beetz is the best thing about Deadpool 2--she's in Bullet Train as a fellow assassin called The Hornet (Brad Pitt is "Ladybug")--and how she was also in the incredible The Harder They Fall, a film that is better than this one in every single respect for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it's not a self-satisfied, self-referential, Oceans Eleven smug-stival. Mainly, I was thinking of when Sean Connery showed up in the last five minutes of Kevin Reynolds's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and entire theatres at the time erupted into applause. I wondered, watching Bullet Train, if there would have been the same sort of reaction to Connery in Robin Hood if the rest of that film were packed to the gills with Connery-level cameos. At a certain point, the joke is that Bullet Train is The Cannonball Run on a bullet train.
What's it about, you ask? I don't know. It's about a briefcase, as so many of these very cool movies are: a steel MacGuffin packed with whatever, which some bad people want over the objections of other bad people. The whole thing is a Murder on the Orient Express where every passenger is guilty or dead--or guilty and dead--and there are jaunty flashbacks and smartass coincidences plus an entire sequence shot from the point-of-view of a water bottle. Do you remember George Armitage's Grosse Pointe Blank? God, that was good, wasn't it? It was about rival assassins, played by John Cusack and Dan Aykroyd, who are after the same target, bringing them into direct conflict with each other. Cusack also contends with a high-school reunion, rekindles an old flame, and eventually rediscovers the value and exhilaration of living. Man, so good. Anyway, Bullet Train is about a bunch of people on a train who know how to fight cool, though not as cool as John Wick--the camera's too close and the editing's too slack--and not in any way we haven't seen before. These people on the train beat and kill one another, a poisonous snake is on the loose, and there's a young woman (Joey King) whose entire gag is playing the wilting lily and getting punished ugly for it. (So is The Hornet--interesting, non?) Because not much thought or consideration was invested in its making, the picture doesn't deserve a lot of thought or consideration in return. Is it offensive? Sure. Is it insensitive to issues concerning race and gender? Of course it is--by default it will be, if no one in the room is challenging their biases and if they're all buoyed besides by the bulletproof air of being the most famous, wealthiest people in the world. It's like those pictures that leak of elite fraternity parties where even people we like--Justin Trudeau, for instance, or Prince Harry--show up wearing brownface or a Nazi uniform because every single person in those rooms is enthusiastically aligned in their ignorance and privilege. I'm sick of fighting it because nothing ever changes. Is Bullet Train worth the conversation? It might as well be, given that it's worth very little else.