It was just one review ago when I invoked the industry truism that a moviegoer will forgive a film’s lousy first act if the filmmakers deliver a good third act. I was referring to BABY ASSASSINS as an example, but lo…another film appeared that fits the paradigm.
BULLET TRAIN was so convoluted, the director so obviously taken with his own technical bravado, that I got pissed off at it early on, and it just kept getting worse. Actors rambled, Brad Pitt didn’t look appealing, I felt like leaving (which is something I occasionally feel, but can never bring myself to do). It was as if I was in the presence of Michael Bay, and you can’t summon up a more brutal endorsement of displeasure than that.
But as we stumbled into the second act, which takes place on a super-speed Japanese Bullet Train, the director and crew began to find their footing, to the point where Alfred Hitchcock, who loved to shoot films on trains (THE LADY VANISHES, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, etc.), might well have been pleased with what they’d wrought. The use of ‘train space’ was intoxicating, DP Jonathan Sela making it both claustrophobic and vast. The characters, thank god, developed into real people, strange but real, practically all of them idiosyncratic hired killers, which makes for a violent, bumpy ride, much the same as TRAIN TO BUSSAN did by stuffing its convoy with zombies. Down the road a ways they’d make a heck of a double bill.
The estimated production cost of $90,000,000 strikes me as well spent. The shoot must have taken upwards of three months to helm. The blend of thriller, gore, and humor interweaves pretty seamlessly. Many of the amusing lines, particularly Brad Pitt’s as a conflicted killer, are deftly mixed into the flow of the action, and the sound is perhaps the standout element of the wildly complex production.
The ensemble performances are all on the money, which is an impressive accomplishment. Co-star Michael Shannon fits seamlessly into the third act…which, by the way, is terrific, with most of the cast members seemingly getting killed off and then rising back up to die again in some new and creative ways. Sandra Bullock’s contribution is 90% off screen, and she’s okay but nothing spectacular, although her apparent facial work is beautifully sculpted and photographed. One of the best age-reductions I’ve seen. She should bring Cinematographer Sela with her on future shoots.
In addition to co-star appearances, there are also ‘cameos,’ which are much smaller drop-bys intended to provide quick little highs to the viewers who recognize them. I guess I shouldn’t give any of them away, but one’s initials are CT, and he cameo’d several years ago in the comedy THIS IS THE END, making it apparently a running gag whose meaning completely eludes me...
See it in a theater if you can, to get the full visceral impact. Or see it on a large home screen, where you might sacrifice the full visceral impact but the story should be easier to follow.
Incidentally, I’ve read another piece about the production which claims that the budget was actually $150,000,000. If that turns out to be the case, then the money was not nearly as well spent.