“Bullet Train” is an action film that could easily have been an animated movie, and often looks and feels like one. The story takes place on a bullet train careening across Japan, but most of the movie was shot on green-screened sets, and the cityscapes and countrysides that the train rides through are mainly miniatures and CGI. Its characters are a touch abstract as well, and knowingly comic-bookish. All are either paid killers or otherwise violent individuals connected with the world of crime, and the majority either have grudges against one of the other characters or are the object of a grudge and trying to escape the consequences of past actions. They tend to have tragic-sentimental backstories or be purely malevolent—and inevitably, 30 years after the great Tarantino realignment of the early nineties, most of them are chatterboxes who will monologue at anyone who doesn’t point a gun at their head and order them to shut up, and the tone mixes winking black comedy and poker-faced pulp.
The plot initially seems goal-driven, revolving around the comatose grandson and the metal briefcase. But as the script adds new fighters to the mix, and establishes that they’re all tangentially connected, “Bullet Train” morphs into a half-assed but sincere statement on fate, luck, and karma—and Ladybug’s constant (and often humorously annoying) comments on those subjects, voiced in discussions through a handler (Sandra Bullock’s Maria Beetle, heard via earpiece), start to feel like an instruction manual for grokking what the movie is “actually” up to. (Ladybug is kind of a post-credits Jules from pulp fiction after repudiating violence, but he’s still stuck in the life, and it has become more challenging because he has resolved never to pick up a gun again.
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