Perhaps the strangest thing about the success of the Deadpool film franchise is that its entire style of humor is a dusty holdover from the late 1990s, back when “snark” had yet to become a household term. How did something so dated resonate with a present-day audience? I had the same question while watching Bullet Train (in theaters August 5), which is directed by Deadpool 2 helmer David Leitch. Nearly every single gag in this belabored action film is a wheezy relic from a post-Tarantino time when canned meta-commentary reigned supreme.
The film is based on a popular, and acclaimed, Japanese novel by Kōtarō Isaka. But considerable changes have been made by screenwriter Zak Olkewicz—and, in improvisatory fashion, by the actors under Leitch’s command. The resulting film is an unrelenting hash of tics and asides and rejoinders that pile up next to the bodies, far more off-putting than any of the film’s lugubrious gore.
Brad Pitt plays a semi-reformed criminal-for-hire codenamed Ladybug, which is of course a joke, because why would a man be called something so delicate and feminine? He’s been away from his career for a bit, seeking clarity and betterment in self-help reading and therapy. Bullet Train regards this as some sort of newfangled practice, as if this was a 1970s comedy about neurotic New Yorkers. Ladybug wants only to get his job done—retrieving a briefcase on the titular vehicle—and get on with his life. But there are other shadowy figures on the train who will prevent him from doing that.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry (the latter lugging around a tortured British accent) are ruthless assassin brothers codenamed Tangerine and Lemon—again, funny names for hard-nosed boys! Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, a recurring joke held over from the novel that really should have been left out of the adaptation. It’s a painful gag that’s returned to again and again, one of many examples of Bullet Train going for sideways erudition and falling hideously flat.