Bullet Train

Expertly made, but dated and ugly in its orientalist take on another culture.

Bullet Train

You review the film that is out, not the one you want to exist. In the case of Bullet Train, an ugly, orientalist, mess from David Leitch, it proves harder than ever.

There is no need for this film to be set in Japan. Yes, it’s based on the book Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka, a smash hit in its native country in 2010. But barely anything of the original survives on screen. The names remain the same, everything else is twisted through a western lens.

Why then not set the film in Europe, where bullet trains exist as well? Surely the changing locales, cultures, and styles would work just as well. If anything, it would prevent what has happened from happening in the first place.

On a surface level, Bullet Train is another run-of-the-mill watered-down Guy Ritchie/Quentin Tarantino pastiche of another person’s homage. It has all the originality of a kid wearing their parent’s clothes. Although, at least children are sincere.

But look beyond the haze of clumsy CGI, hyperactive cinematography, or convoluted writing, and the underbelly proves itself far worse. In keeping the original location (though never even filming there), Bullet Train is an exercise in tired, racist tropes and condescending orientalism as it pushes for the imperialist notion that white people know how to do things better.

Most jokes focus on Brad Pitt marveling at Japanese customs, politeness, and physical attributes. An intelligent toilet has a dedicated comedy bit. Worse, Pitt is such a charismatic actor that he sells these moments perfectly. Affecting a mix between Monsieur Hulot and Mr. Magoo, Pitt’s hitman, Ladybug, would be hilarious in any other circumstances.

But the power difference can’t be ignored. It hangs ominously over every frame. There’s an inherent feeling that we’re not laughing at this together. The object of ridicule is an entire country and its customs, which results in othering them entirely.

The action, visuals, and performances are fine. Everyone involved is talented. The wonderful Aaron Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry make for a surprisingly effective comedy duo. There’s a brilliantly staged fight involving a briefcase and a knife that is way better than it has any right to be.

But it’s all in service of a tone-deaf whole that can’t seem to understand – or simply doesn't care – where the line between adoration and appropriation lies. Because of that, everything feels icky, which the quality then amplifies.

If you can turn your brain off and not worry about these things, chances are you’ll enjoy Bullet Train. I can’t, and I don’t think we should.

Check out the video review for longer and more spoiler-y thoughts on the film.