Bullet Train (15, 126 mins)
Verdict: Not worth boarding
The Japanese don’t do rail strikes. Or at least, when they do, everything still runs on time — disgruntled staff just stop charging passengers for tickets.
But if ever there was a moment to wish for the abrupt cancellation of a service between Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s about ten minutes into Bullet Train.
The journey has hardly begun before there are serious signal problems. Specifically, the signal that the screenplay has been written by someone (Zak Olkewicz) with a fourth-form sense of humour.
Thus, a grown-up assassin (Brian Tyree Henry) turns out to be devoted to the Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
‘Everything I learnt about people, I learnt from Thomas,’ he says, and plainly we’re all meant to cherish the irony of a deadly hitman on a train travelling at 250 mph citing the wisdom of an anthropomorphised locomotive intended for five-year-olds.
If ever there was a moment to wish for the abrupt cancellation of a service between Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s about ten minutes into Bullet Train
The joke, you see, is in the dissonance. Although when I say joke, what I mean is burden, one which poor doughty Henry is obliged to carry forwards, well beyond the point at which you wish the Fat Controller would sit on him and put us all out of our misery.
In fairness to the writer, Olkewicz, maybe he merely lifted the running Thomas gag from the novel by Kotaro Isaka on which this idiotic and disagreeably violent comedy-action thriller is based.
Either way, someone at Sony Pictures must have thought there was material here worthy of a proper heavyweight cast, led by Brad Pitt, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson in support, and Michael Shannon, Channing Tatum, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in cameos.
Pitt plays a hitman codenamed Ladybug. His extended ‘joke’ is that he’s not temperamentally a killer, being rather a sensitive cove. He wears a bucket hat to put even more distance between him and the standard movie representation of an assassin, although of course he’s as brutal as the script needs him to be.
Feeding jaunty instructions into Ladybug’s earpiece is his own controller — a rather skinny one it transpires, played by a mostly unseen Bullock. She wants him to board the bullet train to Kyoto and snatch a mysterious briefcase.
This assignment brings him into conflict with another pair of mercenaries played by Henry and Johnson, West Ham-supporting cockneys codenamed Lemon and Tangerine.
Let me add here that I went to see this film on Tuesday night with my grown-up daughter and she pronounced it ‘quite good fun’. There are certainly a few excellent stunts. So just because it didn’t punch my ticket, doesn’t mean it won’t punch yours
The latter, looking and sounding remarkably like Eric Idle as his ‘nudge-nudge wink-wink’ character from Monty Python, also seems unsuited to the killing business, being slow-witted in the extreme. But he, too, turns out to be a kind of compound of James Bond and John Wick, making him a Bond who gets on your wick.
Anyway, these two dimwits are on the train escorting the son of a fearsome gangster known as The White Death (Shannon).
Are you with me so far? If not, it really doesn’t matter. Other passengers include a sneaky schoolgirl killer (Joey King), a Mexican assassin called Wolf (the rapper Bad Bunny), and a Japanese martial arts expert (Andrew Koji) intent on punishing the person who threw his son off a high-rise building, leaving the child in intensive care.
That’s not a storyline especially relevant to the plot, incidentally, yet its significance lies in the way it is blithely inserted into the script, as if we might all be completely impervious to such a distressing image.
As long as we know it’s for comic effect, right?
Attempting and largely failing to make all this cohere is director David Leitch, whose credits include Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).
In other words, it’s probably fair to assume that he is not a man much influenced by the Merchant-Ivory canon. If there is a conspicuous influence in Bullet Train, it’s Guy Ritchie. Indeed, the extreme violence and tricksy camerawork, not to mention those two East End hitmen with their strained comic banter, made me check I hadn’t missed Ritchie’s name on the bill.
Let me add here that I went to see this film on Tuesday night with my grown-up daughter and she pronounced it ‘quite good fun’. There are certainly a few excellent stunts. So just because it didn’t punch my ticket, doesn’t mean it won’t punch yours.
But compared with some of the great cinematic thrillers set all or partly on trains down the years (The Lady Vanishes, Strangers On A Train, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three), this one should never have left the sidings.
Also intended for comic effect, somewhere on the train there’s a deadly snake at large, so poisonous that it makes you bleed from every orifice after being bitten. For some of us, that seems like a pretty decent metaphor for the film itself.
Predator vs. Comanche proves a surprise hit
Our Eternal Summer
Predator, such a mighty, steamrolling vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, seemed very much of its time when it came out in 1987, directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan.
But it spawned a franchise which is still going strong, and the latest incarnation, a prequel to the other four films, is Prey (99 mins), set in Comanche territory in the early 18th century.
If you’re a Predator fan then you’ll probably find this a worthy addition, though I can imagine what Arnie thinks about its straight-to-streaming release. The Native American actress Amber Midthunder dominates the story as Naru, a bold young hunter desperate to prove her worth to the doubting men of the tribe.
Most of the cast, by the way, are Native American, which is admirable but raises a question over the dialogue, which is full of modern white-man colloquialisms. ‘Who invited you?’ sneers a haughty male warrior when Naru turns up on a hunting expedition, a line that might have been lifted from any 21st century high-school drama.
The Native American actress Amber Midthunder dominates the story as Naru, a bold young hunter desperate to prove her worth to the doubting men of the tribe
As it turns out, casual sexism is the least of Naru’s problems. She can throw a tomahawk with unerring accuracy but there are snarling mountain lions to contend with, and hostile French fur trappers, and of course, most challenging of all, a translucent killer alien.
Director Dan Trachtenberg does a decent job building up to an exciting finale, and headdresses off to his skilled cinematographer, Jeff Cutter, who worked with Trachtenberg on the latter’s terrific debut feature, 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Another debut feature, Our Eternal Summer (72 mins) is a French film in which a bunch of carefree adolescents, doing all the things virile French teenagers do in the movies, abruptly have their innocence snatched from them when one of their number drowns off a Mediterranean beach after an ill-advised late-night swim.
At barely an hour and a quarter long, Emilie Aussel’s admirably concise film deals mainly with the grief, guilt and recriminations that follow this tragedy.
It’s a coming-of-age story, really, which sensibly keeps grown-ups out of the picture and is very nicely acted by a group of first-timers.
Prey is available on Disney+. Our Eternal Summer is on Mubi.