Bullet Train is coming to Prime Video.
“Eliminate everything that has no relevance to the story. If in the first chapter you write that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or at the most in the third you have to force it to be fired”. Thus wrote – in one of the many variations on the theme – the Russian playwright Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: it was an advice he always gave to his students, which over time has become one of the golden rules not only of writing novels, but also of cinematography , and more generally of any narrative art. Bullet train by David Leitch, based on the novel Mariabitoru by Kōtarō Isaka, it seems like many things: an even cooler and less dirty Guy Ritchie film, a tarantina like they haven’t seen in a while, a more talkative spin-off than John Wick. More than anything, though, it feels like a film that takes Chekhov’s advice very much to heart, only instead of showing us a single gun and making us wonder “when will it fire?” of him.
Curiously or maybe not, Bullet train opens with a gun abandoned to its fate, and that we will never see again for the rest of the film. It is the one that Ladybug (codename Brad Pitt) abandons in the locker from which she collects the instructions for her next mission: the boy is stressed, he has started going to therapy and has decided to abandon the path of violence if he can to devote himself to healing the world. This is because Ladybug is a mercenary who is hired by the mysterious voice of Sandra Bullock to carry out dangerous missions around the world: the latest in chronological order involves recovering a pulpfiction-ian briefcase from a train going from Tokyo to Kyoto, and since the work seems easy our hero decides to comply with the requests of his therapist and not to take the gun with him.
Earlier we said that Bullet train might look like a spin-off of John Wick, if it weren’t actually the adaptation of what is also the second novel of a trilogy. Ladybug is not the only mercenary we know: on the contrary, as in the films with Keanu Reeves we are immediately immersed in a world in which it seems that normal people form the background, and who are so used to being surrounded by hired assassins and secret agents undercover not to be surprised if every five minutes there is a shootout or a chase. It is the same approach, in fact, of John Wick and to a lesser extent than Atomic Blonde: by now we can say that this idea of bringing the criminal underworld to the fore and relegating normality to the background is an integral part of David Leitch’s imagination.
So, in addition to Ladybug we meet a large cast of disreputable people: the couple made up of Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, who are on the train to save the son of a Russian mobster and recover the same briefcase above; The Prince, that is Joey King, a mysterious spoiled and completely amoral girl who is on the train to carry out a personal vendetta; The Wolf (Benito Martinez Ocasio), a Mexican killer who… well, you understand, you don’t need the complete list: Bullets train is a film populated by bad people who find themselves sharing the same train journey for reasons that at first seem random, but which will gradually be revealed in a sort of moving version of Invitation to dinner with crime.
Having so many narrative threads available to intertwine without losing coherence, Leitch therefore does what we said above, and builds Chekhov’s arsenal: everything Bullet train it is littered with elements (often but not always inanimate objects) that will sooner or later come in handy for the plot, even in the silliest and most unpredictable ways. The briefcase is just the easiest, and also the most abused, example. But there is also, say, a single bottle of water becomes at a certain point the protagonist of a personal epic useful to explain a series of narrative passages left pending until then. There is a snake on that train, which appears for almost two hours without interacting in any way with the rest of the film: yet, precisely due to the rule of the aforementioned Russian playwright (and also because it is a very poisonous snake), every time appears on stage generates tension, because Surely sooner or later it will have to take action.
Bullet train thus it becomes a film of people chasing objects, and whose trajectories occasionally cross for pure statistics. Obviously, having limited space available, these ideal lines become more and more dense as the minutes go by, until they turn into a ball of yarn that is unwound with gunshots in the third act. But the whole film is a great balancing act, almost an experiment: however long we can pretend that these ten, fifteen, twenty people are disconnected from each other and are only meeting by chance during their personal missions.
And if you want to talk not about the structure but about the final result, it must be admitted that not everything is Bullet train works as it would like, for the usual reasons. First of all, as always happens with films of a certain caliber, it is too long, in the sense that its container of stories contains a couple of stories that slow down the pace, create unnecessary confusion and could easily be cut to obtain a better film (sorry, Zazie Beetz). And then he’s far too busy building Chinese boxes and jumping back and forth along the timelines, between flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks (flashbackception), not to putty in the long run: the train on which the film takes place goes on until the end, while on board the story goes in too many directions at once.
That said, a film that errs due to an excess of generosity and enthusiasm is better than one that prudently dances on the borderline of sufficiency without ever putting a foot wrong. And if you like writing mechanics, Bullet train it’s a great example of how to take a basic rule of storytelling and build an entire film around it.