Buckets o’ Blood

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In Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, five strangers fall to their deaths when a century-old rope bridge collapses. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan friar who was going to cross the bridge and narrowly missed joining them in death, wonders what brought these strangers — and only these five strangers — to the bridge at that very moment. Was it God? Fate? Coincidence?

Bullet Train has a similar theme. It follows the stories of half a dozen characters traveling on a train from Tokyo to Kyoto, each of whom has a mission loosely connected to a particular piece of luggage. Some are seeking revenge. Some are seeking justice. Some are just there to do a job and get paid.

Kimura (Andrew Koji) is there to track down the person who pushed his young son from a department store roof. Wolf (Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, aka Bad Bunny) shows up to avenge the deadly massacre of his wedding party — a fate he narrowly missed when a waiter bumped his arm, prompting him to go wipe off his suit. Tangerine (Aaron Tyler-Johnson) and Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) are incompetent, foul-mouthed, somehow lovable cockney twins whose job is to rescue the kidnapped son of White Death (Michael Shannon) and bring back the ransom money, hidden — you guessed it — inside that particular piece of luggage. Prince (Joey King) is a coolheaded and coldblooded schoolgirl who has other plans for the luggage. Tangerine’s brother, Lemon, observes that everything he needs to know he learned from Thomas the Train characters, and identifies everyone he meets as a Diesel, a Gordon, a Thomas, etc. — rather like those annoying friends who smugly pigeonhole you as an INFJ or ENTP. And then there’s the deadly boomslang snake, because what could be more hilarious than snakes on a plane? A snake on a train, of course.

Unwittingly at the center of all this is Ladybug (Brad Pitt), a smash and grab specialist just filling in for a colleague who called in sick. He’s a droll, deadpan, Zen-spouting former hitman seeking spiritual enlightenment and inner peace after a spate of bad luck he attributes to his chosen profession. (Well, duh.) With the skills of a highly trained assassin and the personality of a flower child, he’s just trying to figure out the meaning of life and share it with others. Ladybug is a wisecracker who doesn’t mean to crack wise — and a thug who doesn’t like to thug. “Let that be a lesson in the toxicity of anger,” he says to someone whom he has just beaten to a pulp while trying to avoid the fight. Ever the kind and polite assassin, he addresses the fearsome man called the White Death as “Mr. Death.” Pitt plays Ladybug to the hilt — and sticks the sword into his attacker to the hilt as well.

All of this is just so charming. So funny. So fun.

 

And this leads to my problem with this movie: the acting is superb, and the tone is fun. It’s obvious from the A-list cameos that Bullet Train isn’t just the film to see this season, but also the film to be seen in.

It’s also bloody as hell.

In fact, at one point a character wakes up in a bathroom covered in blood next to another body covered in blood and asks, “Am I in hell?” It got a big laugh from the audience, but I had to ask myself the same question: had I marched into hell when I stepped into the theater?

Ten minutes into the film, Lemon and Tangerine are recalling a recent job in which they killed 16 or 17 people while going after a single target. Arguing over who remembers the number correctly, they begin listing the kills with the same disinterested tone and aplomb that you or I might have while trying to remember what we ate yesterday. “And then I ate three cookies.” “Yes, that’s right — there were five in the package, and I ate two, and then it was empty, so . . .” As the two count bodies, we see blood spurting from a bullet to one man’s head, blood spurting from a slice in another man’s throat, a wave of blood spewing from bullets ripping through the bodies of five poker players, and from another’s — well, you get the idea. The breezy, ’60s pop sound of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” creates a lighthearted background for this mayhem. It’s supposed to be hilarious, and I suppose that if you like watching people die horrifying deaths, it is. I don’t.

We’re also expected to like this community of assassins — the wise, venerable grandfather (whose own spurious history has put his grandson in danger); Ladybug, whose desire to find peace should atone for the mayhem in his past; and Lemon and Tangerine, two half-witted blokes whose brotherly love and charming ineptitude are supposed to blot out the lighthearted bloodletting we see in the first ten minutes of the movie. All of this is just so charming. So funny. So fun.

A lot of people I know are raving about this movie, which causes me to wonder about my friends.

At one point a character wakes up in a bathroom covered in blood next to another body covered in blood and asks, “Am I in hell?” It got a big laugh from the audience.

 

Talking to his brother about the problem with modern movies, Tangerine laments, “There’s no message in films today. What are we supposed to learn?” Hurtling from station to station, Bullet Train tries to lead a message. Fate is its recurrent theme. “Fate is just another word for bad luck,” one character says, seeming to confirm Ladybug’s belief that bad luck is his fate. “You can’t control what fate has in store for us,” Kimura’s wise old father tells him. We know he is wise because he is old. And Japanese. Never mind that it was the choices he made, not some anonymous, disinterested “Fate,” that led to his son and grandson’s current danger. Later he explains that ladybugs are not really a symbol of luck; instead, he intones, “Ladybugs hold all the sorrows so others can live in peace.” This seems to suggest metaphorically that Brad Pitt’s character holds the sorrows of others so they can live in peace — the peace he is seeking throughout the film. But from what I know of hitmen, assassins, and smash and grab artists, they cause sorrow — they don’t assuage it.

I think what bothers me most about movies such as this one is the way the very people who rail against the idea of ordinary citizens carrying guns for protection can spend $100 million or more creating a movie that glorifies the fun of watching people die in ever more gruesome and bloody ways. This isn’t a bullet train because of the speed with which it travels from station to station; it’s a bullet train because it is filled with bullets. We really are becoming Romans at the Coliseum.

Watch it if you must. You’ll marvel at Brad Pitt’s thespian skills. You’ll chuckle with delight at the cameos. You’ll probably have some laughs. And I’ll take a guess that you’re on a bullet train to becoming an ASPD, a Diesel instead of a Thomas.

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