Appropriate for a film titled Ball Form, David Leitch’s latest action-comedy gives you what you pay for. For the price of a single ticket, you can see Brad Pitt, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, and other Hollywood greats star in up to six different stories in one movie.
Based on the novel Maria Beetle by Kotaro Isaka (later translated into English by high-speed train), the film tells the story of a group of professional thieves and assassins pursuing their own agendas aboard a Shinkansen traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto. Most of the characters’ ethnicities changed from Japanese to American, British and beyond, in a move that was condemned by the Japanese American Citizens League (although the author doesn’t seem to care). However, underneath it all, the bones of the story stay mostly true to Isaka’s novel. But then the film adds to it.
By including a subplot about a Russian who rises through the ranks of the yakuza, High-speed train brings a lot of elements to it from Martin Zandvliet’s 2018 thriller the stranger, with Jared Leto. And with the first’s Japanese setting eventually being reduced to a few over-stylized backgrounds, huge parts of the movie look suspiciously like Guy Moshe’s action flick. Bunraku (2010).
Add to that a mixture of ultra-violence presented in a wacky way and characters indulging in verbal battles straight out of Guy Ritchie’s films and you might start to worry. High-speed train is a bit blurry. And we haven’t finished listing all of his apparent influences yet.
While it’s certainly not a musical, the music plays a big part in Leitch’s film, with many of the actors and the action moving to the beat of the soundtrack. Everything feels like a big-budget music video sometimes… Just like Jeymes Samuel’s 2021 Western “Musical Experience” The more they fall.
And then there is the John Wick link. Much of the plot of Keanu Reeves’ action movie was actually revealed early on thanks to a clever Easter egg where a background character is shown reading the book. Shibumi. The 1979 novel by Trevanian (a pseudonym of Rodney William Whitaker), when reduced to its most basic elements, is about a highly trained assassin fighting Russians, using everyday objects as weapons and even killing some of his enemies with a pencil, which is what happens in John Wick.
However, the book also has a strong connection to Japanese culture, which wasn’t really present in the 2014 film. It’s definitely there in High-speed trainwhich similarly features assassins fighting Russians using everyday objects as weapons, one of whom (played by Joey King) is also shown reading Shibumi in a scene.
99% of the time, such a hodgepodge of ideas and inspirations would be a recipe for disaster and an all-out tonal boost, but Leitch and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz make it work with a few smart choices.
For one thing, they didn’t cast Pitt as the hero of the film. His face may be on every poster, but he’s not your typical heroic protagonist who saves the day in the end. Instead, Pitt’s character, a mercenary codenamed Ladybug, is a self-pity whiner who constantly talks about his bad luck. Pitt simply disappears into the role because he is, at heart, a character actor who has been forced into lead roles for too long.
To be clear, it always makes a good job as the hero protagonist, but give him a weird ball to play with and he’ll bring his absolute A-game to the table, just like in High-speed train. His standout performance helps ground the film and keep it from tearing apart with all of its various nods and references to other productions.
Second, the film prepares audiences early on for its unique blend of styles and tones. It begins with a dramatic scene of a gangster coming to terms with his son’s near-fatal accident before suddenly transitioning to a neon title card and a Japanese rendition of “Stayin’ Alive.” This tells you right away that the movie is going to make a lot of interesting choices.
High-speed train also really up the humor, and that’s what lets it get away with its impossible characters and a blender approach to scriptwriting. Yes, it sometimes seems blurry and doesn’t quite work here and there, but it’s hard to stay mad at a movie that made a water bottle one of its main characters. It makes sense in context.
That being said, it’s completely understandable that you can’t get into the movie due to its chaotic nature and the many liberties he takes to introduce Japanese culture to Western audiences.
At the end of the day, High-speed train is a circus performance where a blood-soaked clown deftly juggles a slew of ideas and Hollywood celebrities against the backdrop of hastily painted Mount Fuji. And then the whole circus explodes in one big action-packed fireball. If this description has piqued your interest, High-speed train might just be the movie for you. Otherwise… no one would blame you.
Bullet Train is currently being screened in cinemas across Japan.