“Bullet Train” is two hours of my life I could’ve better spent force-feeding myself straight vinegar. It’s like they watched that episode of the Simpsons where they go to Japan as their homework for what Japanese culture is, saw the ScarJo “Ghost in the Shell” whitewashing and were like “But what if entire movie”, and then thought the basis of a good screenplay is the characters constantly complaining to each other that the dialogue fucking sucks. “Bullet Train” isn’t bad enough to be exhausting, but it’s not good enough to be bad enough to be good, either.
I’ve written a lot lately about films I find beautiful, or even finding the bittersweet in films I don’t, so I don’t really want to go off…but “Bullet Train” is like that Jeff Goldblum monologue about being too busy wondering whether they could that they didn’t stop to ask if they should. Except it’s not about cloning dinosaurs but just reading the instructions on Play-Doh where it says you shouldn’t eat the shit. How hard is it to not egregiously whitewash a movie in 2022?
In an adaptation of Isaka Kotaro’s Maria Beetle, Brad Pitt plays a snatch-and-grab specialist who goes by Ladybug. He finds himself on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. A simple job erupts into a mess when he realizes assassins and gangsters are also among the passengers, their targets and interests at odds. It’s not actually a very convoluted plot, it’s just told that way so that Ladybug can reflect on Fate.
You could’ve at least gotten a “Con Air” out of this if the writer and director weren’t so set on thinking Brad Pitt playing a manbaby tourist who’s a professional thief in Japan (who knows nothing about Japan) was enough to hold up two hours of movie. You could’ve gotten even more out of it if they’d gone with some Japanese filmmakers and actors for this movie that takes place entirely in Japan and centers itself on Japanese concepts of luck, fate, and karma. Instead, Pitt mumbles his way through them for a story that thinks Japanese religion and culture are all just great fodder for repeating variants of the same joke over and over again.
There are places where the conversation about whitewashing can get more nuanced and contextual. Say, if you set this on a cross-country train in the U.S., it might make sense to adapt characters out to include the specific diversity of the U.S. By similar logic, if you took “Die Hard” and adapted it in Japan, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the roles replaced with Japanese actors. This conversation often has to incorporate a number of considerations. There is plenty of sensible room to adapt these things by changing who plays a role, but “Bullet Train” doesn’t deserve that conversation since the entire plot is still set on a bullet train in Japan. It’s not transposed to another country or culture. It just changes numerous Japanese roles to be white characters and one Black character.
In fact, there are surprisingly few Japanese people on this bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. Exactly two supporting roles are played by Japanese actors, and one of them doesn’t even show up in any meaningful way until the last 20 minutes – a wasted Hiroyuki Sanada who’s there to offer brief snippets of wisdom about fate that the American performers fail at turning into witty banter. That fucking legend barely gets more screen time than a Channing Tatum cameo whose only purpose is a repeating gay joke. Otherwise, Japanese characters only appear as brief obstacles that serve as comedy props for our white dudes.
Don’t get me wrong, “Kate” was one of my films of the year last year, and I’ll die on the hill that it’s one of the best action movies I’ve seen. Its director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, is not Japanese. Neither are that movie’s leads Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Woody Harrelson. But in the Japan sequences that amount to 95% of that movie, every other actor (save one hitman) was. Crowds were. Extras were. It got some set details wrong, but it also somewhat successfully entered into a conversation about colonialism that made it clear the white people we follow are interlopers. And “Bullet Train” director David Leitch was one of the producers of “Kate”, so he should know better.
It blows my mind that “Bullet Train” cost four times more than “Kate”, yet couldn’t seem to find a tenth of the Japanese actors. Oh, but unlike “Kate” it was filmed almost entirely in Los Angeles. You know, in California, home to the largest number of Japanese-American communities in the U.S. Couldn’t find any actors of Japanese descent? That means they didn’t even try.
I’m not trying to pass off “Kate” as massively successful at this. I bring it up because it hits the minimums on this. There are places where it does better (like the fully Japanese soundtrack that features some deep cuts), but mostly it hits the minimums. My point is that even just achieving those minimums is enough to allow the film a sense of immersion that in turn lets its story be told in a captivating way.
I’m not even comparing “Bullet Train” to something that does this side of things well. I’m comparing it to something that simply avoids fucking it up. “Bullet Train” can’t even get that far. There’s a larger point to be made about representation and inclusivity, but we can’t even get to that if you haven’t even done the minimum to achieve immersion. You can’t even get to immersion if you can’t even get past whitewashing.
It’s like someone took the concept of world building for a world that already exists cause hey look, under your feet, there it literally is, and he didn’t have to build it, he didn’t have to do much work beyond matching it, and he noped straight out of clearing the lowest bar imaginable even when he can hire consultants to gently nestle the bar under his feet. I’ve seen bad world building before, but it is rare when someone straight-up mistakes world breaking for any kind of productive or immersive storytelling. No amount of whip pans, smash edits, and cameos can make up for the rare laziness and disinterest required to arrive at such an apathetically constructed world. It bears no resemblance to anything consequential that I can remotely care about as a viewer.
There are ethical and cultural conversations to this that are far more important, but something the “just cast the best [white] actor” argument misses all the time is that this is a qualitative argument, too. Cut out the talent pool that naturally fits your movie, fits its setting, understands the source it adapts, that grew up with access to the humor and action “Bullet Train” wants to culturally transplant, and what you’re left with is a bunch of clueless actors drawn from a narrower talent pool, who lack so much experience in what you’re trying to convey that all they’re left with is to pantomime exaggerations, exoticism, and stereotypes, making the mistake that the embarrassing mess they’re acting out is somehow clever or accurate because no one bothered to hire anyone who knows better.
There’s no reality to “Bullet Train” because it’s not interested in any. Elevated reality requires a foundation to hoist it up; this is just swampy drivel. It’s just Brad Pitt thinking his inept supporting character in “Burn After Reading” makes a good basis for a lead in a movie about highly-skilled assassins in Japan and Japanese spirituality.
The humor isn’t translated. It acts out what it thinks is Japanese humor, which is: Americans making fun of what they think Japanese humor is. But if you watch any amount of Japanese media, you know this ain’t it.
Pitt is 58, which doesn’t mean anything on its own. Hell, Sanada’s 62 and he would’ve been great in the lead. But neither is Pitt a Keanu or Charlize Theron finding their second stride. He looks pretty done when it comes to a role this physical. Your other lead fight performers are Brian Tyree Henry? Bad Bunny? Aaron Taylor-Johnson makes some sense if you’re willing to risk his one-film-good, one-film-wallpaper-paste performance rotation. Michael Shannon is great at a lot of stuff, but it sure as hell isn’t sword fighting.
Hell, the one who maybe had some business being here is Joey King, who plays a narcissistic mastermind known as The Prince. Earlier this year, she John-Wicked it up in “The Princess”, a movie that’s basically one extended stairwell fight. In “Bullet Train”, she’s just a babe-in-the-woods take on the femme fatale. I kept waiting for her to go off, but she doesn’t get to punch a thing. King’s Prince pales next to her Princess performance; the whole thing’s a royal waste.
What are we left with? Characters constantly complaining each others’ dialogue annoys them? Hey, I apologize for being wrong, the script is accurate about something.
The fights are boring and rely on actors who just aren’t up to them, while actors who’ve proven they can do this work with verve sit on the sidelines. The humor relies on the energetic, mile-a-minute sight gag editing of Japanese satire, here delivered at the much slower and over-explained pace of Western star-vehicle comedy. The witty banter isn’t. The venerable Hiroyuki Sanada is diminished into the role of whatever we call the “Magical Negro” trope when we do it to Asian people. The only thing “Bullet Train” succeeds at is how completely it hits its disgusting target of whitewashing Japanese people out of Japan. Fuck this movie.
You can watch “Bullet Train” on Netflix.
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