‘Bullet Train’ goes off the rails, but Pitt doesn’t

Aboard “Bullet Train’s” high-speed locomotive, ride at least five assassins, a poisonous reptile (a snake on the train), countless Guy Ritchie-style slow-motion action sequences, and a bucket hat wearing Brad Pitt.

There are a lot of ingredients that go into this candy-colored battle royale of a movie. But the only one that really matters is the latter. At 58, Pitt’s star power has never felt so easy and natural. Beaming in “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” delightful in “The Lost City,” Pitt glides through “Bullet Train” in a rarefied state of cruise control. Rarely has a movie star had so much fun.

In “Bullet Train,” which opens in theaters Friday, Pitt plays a mercenary by profession but nothing else. Her codename is Ladybug. He doesn’t like guns. And in his first job after a hiatus from self-reflection and therapy, he throws himself into deadly fights with great reluctance, spouting self-help slogans like “Hurting people, hurting people” in the midst of a hand to hand combat. Pitt, a maximal movie star with a minimalist bent, is a hitman with no taste for hitting.

Ladybug, tasked with grabbing a very peculiar briefcase on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto, may not be ready for the job, but the bigger question is whether “Bullet Train” is a good enough vehicle for her. biggest star. Director David Leitch, stuntman-turned-director of ‘Atomic Blonde’ and ‘Deadpool 2’, brought the style and energy of a ‘John Wick’ film (he co-directed the first) to a setting traditionally associated with more subtle methods of killing.

But with movies like Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer” and Liam Neeson-directed “The Commuter” greasing the wheels, train movies have moved forward from the original “Murder on the Orient Express.” Adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s pulpy novel “MariaBeetle,” “Bullet Train” further amps up the carnage and shifts the action to Japan.

But the location here is mostly just a neon-lit stage for a high-speed scrimmage with an international ensemble, including Brian Tyree Henry (best of the bunch) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the British ‘twins’ who bicker; Andrew Koji as a Japanese assassin; a Mexican cartel veteran named the Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny); a dangerous young woman called Prince who pretends to cry to get out of almost everything (Joey King); and the Zazie Beetz killer known as the Hornet.

All are on the train for various criminal reasons ultimately linked to a Russian kingpin named the White Death. The actor playing this most fearsome character is best left to the third act reveal, but that’s just one way “Bullet Train” plays with the star character. There’s a cameo that answers Pitt in “The Lost City.” Another “Lost City” star, Sandra Bullock, is mostly only heard from on the other end of a phone line, as Ladybug’s handler.

The copious flashbacks and eccentric banter (Henry’s character has a vision based on Thomas the Tank Engine) that accompany all these characters’ juggling between bloody encounters are a familiar type of setting reminiscent of a long line of Quentin Tarantino forgeries. . In “Bullet Train,” a film that proudly opts for style over substance, characters are introduced as video game fighters, running gags get smashed, and winking irreverence lands somewhere between playful and exhausting.

It’s not a train wreck. Leitch’s film is colorful, cartoonish and well choreographed. But the more manic energy of “Bullet Train” eventually runs out, since that’s all the movie ever worked. Well, that and Pitt. Its charm alone does wonders for the film, elevating it to at least watchable. When, in the finale, Ladybug comically navigates unscathed through the wreckage, it captures exactly the situation. “Bullet Train” might go off the rails but Pitt remains bulletproof.

“Bullet Train,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for its loud, bloody violence, pervasive language, and brief sexuality. Duration: 126 minutes. Two and a half out of four stars.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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