Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Brad Pitt recently won his Academy Award for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Pitt was also one of the first American actors to work with Guy Ritchie in Snatch (2000). I bring up Tarantino and Ritchie because it feels as if director David Leitch is invoking Tarantino and Ritchie who revel in crime films that embrace comedy, often black humor. Leitch was a stunt performer and in fact stunt double for Pitt on several of his films, including Fight Club (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Leitch started producing and directing films with John Wick (2014).
As a former stunt-man, it’s clear that Leitch likes action flicks. That action mostly involved gun violence and martial arts. The pinnacle was an incredible, extended sequence in Atomic Blonde (2017) toward the end that was a wide and expansive set-piece. This film instead has set-pieces that are narrow and restricting. All the set-pieces are limited to the inside of a high-speed train. There have been effective thrillers and even effective action onboard a train. Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) was a favorite of mine, even though the critical response made it seen unfavorable. That film was about a hijacking on a train, which is a common way to do an action film on a train that keeps the action on that train. Unless the film is Train to Busan (2016), limiting action to a train can be difficult. There is a running gag of how Pitt’s character can’t seem to get off the train, despite wanting to do so. The gag strains credulity and only underscores how unnecessary Pitt’s character ultimately is.
Pitt stars as an assassin or mercenary known as Ladybug. He fills in for another assassin who is assigned to do a snatch-and-grab onboard a high-speed train going from Tokyo to Kyoto. Specifically, he’s taking the Shinkansen. If one drove from Tokyo to Kyoto, it would take about six hours by car. The Shinkansen can do so in half that time. In some instances, it’s a little over 2 hours. The Shinkansen can travel as fast as 300 kilometers-per-hour or about 200 mph. Ladybug’s job is to steal a briefcase on that train and get off before anyone notices.
What he doesn’t realize is that there are five other assassins who are also onboard. All of them are also to one degree or another after the briefcase or become connected to it. Ladybug has to discover and eventually fight each of these assassins. Ladybug isn’t a super-hero but he does seem to have the super-power of a character in Deadpool 2 (2018), a previous film that Leitch directed, and, in which, Pitt made a cameo.
In Deadpool 2, a character named Domino has the super-power of luck. Ironically, Pitt’s cameo in Deadpool 2 was the opposite of lucky. However, here, Ladybug is apparently the luckiest person alive. As a result, any life-or-death situation will always end with Ladybug surviving because luck is always on his side. This presents a problem that the film doesn’t really address. Ladybug is either good at his job or he’s not. In terms of his own personal skills, it’s never clear if Ladybug is akin to John Wick or rather Mr. Magoo. The comedy perhaps would have been funnier if Leitch leaned more toward the Mr. Magoo comparison, but the film instead places Ladybug in the middle, attempting to make some grander statement about fate, which falls rather flat.
Brian Tyree Henry (Eternals and Godzilla vs. Kong) co-stars as Lemon, a Black British assassin. His partner is a white British assassin named Tangerine, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Godzilla). If one didn’t believe that this film was invoking or perhaps ripping off Tarantino, the existence of Lemon and Tangerine are all the proof to the contrary. Lemon and Tangerine are clearly inspired by Vincent and Jules from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Except, you’re never meant to be truly terrified by Lemon and Tangerine. They’re obviously comical characters. Vincent and Jules have an edge to them, a scary menace that Lemon and Tangerine never achieve.
At one point, I thought Leitch might subvert expectations and reveal that Lemon and Tangerine weren’t just literal partners in crime but that they were gay lovers. Perhaps, it’s merely the fact that Henry recently played a gay character in Eternals (2021), but there is a surprisingly emotional moment between Lemon and Tangerine that made me think their relationship was deeper or more intimate than the one between Vincent and Jules. Having a gay character in this kind of crime film wouldn’t have been new. Ritchie did so in RocknRolla (2008) and again in The Gentlemen (2019), but even Ritchie couldn’t craft a loving and relatively healthy, same-sex romance. This film had that potential. Leitch’s film even includes moments of gay male gazing or what seems like expressions of same-sex attraction, but the film makes clear that Lemon and Tangerine’s affections are brotherly or strictly Platonic.
There’s another running gag about the cast. We get actors popping up who had significant roles in films that both Pitt and Leitch have done before. Sandra Bullock has a role here, which follows her film The Lost City (2022) in which Pitt was featured. Zazie Beetz also has a role here, which follows Deadpool 2, Leitch’s 2nd or 3rd feature, depending on when you start counting. These cast-members popping up are fun. Bullock’s voice-over work is particularly amusing. However, it’s a shame that for a film set in Japan, the Asian actors get the short shrift. The film does begin with Andrew Koji (Snake Eyes and Warrior), along side veteran Asian actor, Hiroyuki Sanada (Mortal Kombat and The Last Samurai). Koji plays a father named Kimura whose dilemma is akin to Liam Neeson’s dilemma in The Commuter (2018). Sanada plays Kimura’s father. One assumes Kimura is going to be the lead character but he’s immediately shuffled to the side, which was disappointing.
The Puerto Rican pop star, Bad Bunny, aka Benito A. Martínez Ocasio plays another assassin named “The Wolf”. Of all the assassins, he probably gets the most in terms of back-story. In fact, when the film focuses on the Wolf for what feels like five minutes or more, it seems as if the film had gone in a completely different direction. His character is then so quickly dispatched as almost to make those five minutes or so pointless. He didn’t even get that great a fight scene in a film that didn’t have a lot of great fight scenes, mainly because again it’s restricted by the overall setting.
Rated R for strong and bloody violence, language and brief sexuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 6 mins.