Bullet Train (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

What a blast! What a gas! And what the heck’s wrong with critics? Complaining Hollywood lacks originality and turning their noses up at this helter skelter of a thriller that hits eleven from the outset, maintains a hectic pace, and boasts gut-busting laughs.

The plot’s as complicated as it is simple. A bunch of assassins on a train trying to steal a suitcase containing ten million dollars discover they are taking the ride for another reason. Finding out they have competition, not just on board, but on various train station platforms, lends to the complications as they – and the viewer – try to work out just what the hell is going on. While there’s some great dialogue, for most of these guys fists and guns are their easiest means of communication so cue some fabulous action sequences.

Twin English hitmen Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) are the original messenger boys, tasked with delivering the loot from Tokyo to Kyoto on the titular train along with the son of a notorious gangster. Lemon, not the brightest gun in the arsenal, has left the case on a communal luggage rack where first off it is snaffled by Ladybug (Brad Pitt), as ethereal an assassin as you could wish for, and one in denial, preferring a more spiritual outlet for his skills. But guys who are good at killing people are less efficient at holding onto suitcases.

And so the prize bounces from character to character, including Kimura (Andrew Koji), the Wolf (Bad Bunny), Hornet (Zazie Beetz) and Prince (Joey King). Did I mention there was a deadly snake aboard and that the ultimate gangster going by the moniker of The White Death (Michael Shannon) was lying in wait? No? I didn’t want to overcomplicate matters.

Every time the various assassins, who specialize in different murder techniques, think they are getting to the bottom of the mysterious goings-on the movie virtually jumps track to head down a different route, but it does so with such elan and verve that you can’t wait for the next wrong turn.

The characterisation is as good as anything dreamt up by Tarantino, the oddbeat characters dancing to their own odd beat, the squabbling Tangerine and Lemon almost steal the show from Ladybug who believes he is suffering from a run of bad luck. And like he’s caught up in the wrong movie, Ladybug confides his thoughts to his offscreen handler Maria (Sandra Bullock). Wistful schoolgirl Prince can talk her way out of any situation. But as I said, the others prefer to just beat up their rivals.

So stand by for some of the greatest action this side of Jason Bourne and John Wick. And some of the dumbest moves this side of Dumb and Dumber. You’d think the action/comedy fusion wouldn’t work at all but the way director David Leitch plays with our expectations the whole shebang works beautifully. Though I wouldn’t describe it as such, more like an action picture that happens to make you laugh.

Part of the reason the action is so terrific is Leitch is a former stuntman, who must dream fights in his sleep, because he’s certainly dreamt up some original mano a mano stuff here. But he’s also the uncredited co-director of John Wick (2104) and sole helmer of Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw (2019) so he’s no stranger to mixing action and comedy. And he takes a fluid approach to narrative.

But the laidback Brad Pitt (Ad Astra, 2019), almost a Bill Murray throwback, is absolutely superb, an Oscar worthy performance, a character re-examining his life in the midst of an assassins convention, and trying not to blame anyone attempting to kill him. Brian Tyree Henry (Joker, 2019) is the pick of the supporting cast. It’s a step up for Aaron Taylor-Johnson (The King’s Man, 2021), who plays the most irascible gangster since Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York (2002). The outstanding supporting cast is mostly made up of up-and-comers  – Joey King (The Kissing Booth 2, 2020), Zazie Beetz (Lucy in the Sky, 2019), Andrew Koji (Snake Eyes, 2021) – plus Michael Shannon (Heart of Champions, 2021) and Sandra Bullock (The Lost City, 2022) and cameos from Channing Tatum (The Lost City) and

The only minor quibbles are overuse of references to British kids fave Thomas the Tank Engine which may not be such a global phenomenon as the director would like, leading I would guess to some audience bafflement in the U.S., as might occasional mention of London soccer team West Ham, both key to the lives of Tangerine and Lemon.

Leitch owes an almighty vote of thanks to screenwriter Zak Olkewicz (Fear Street, Part Two -1978, 2021) who not only pulls the whole package together but springs brilliant lines and situations though how much was lifted directly from the source book by Kotaro Isaka I couldn’t tell you.

Can’t wait for the sequel. Brad Pitt has created a brilliant screen character that deserves a second outing.

Flight from Ashiya (1964) ***

A post-WW2 operation to save a handful of Japanese adrift at sea in a storm is endangered when three members of the U.S. Air Force Air Rescue Service confront conflicts from their past. Despite tense rescue action, this is basically a three-hander about guilt and how men deal – or fail to deal – with emotions. Extended flashbacks illuminate the tangled relationships between Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark and George Chakiris.

So really it’s like one of those portmanteau films that were occasionally popular – like Trio (1950) made up of Somerset Maugham short stories or the more recent The VIPs (1963) or The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964). Each of the episodes stands up in its own right, actions taken in the past having a direct bearing on the present situation. Chakiris is haunted by causing an avalanche after flying his helicopter too close to a mountain and by having to leave behind many of the victims, due to restricted capacity on board, and now he is terrified of flying solo. 

As a consequence, Widmark has no faith in abilities as a pilot. Widmark has an ongoing hatred of the Japanese – colleague Brynner of Japanese ancestry also bears his wrath – because his ill wife (Shirley Knight) and child died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where medical supplies were reserved for the Japanese. Faced with rescuing Japanese, he is enraged.  For his part, Brynner, as a paratrooper during the war, inadvertently caused  the death of his Algerian girlfriend.

It’s not so much an examination of tough guys under pressure as about their inability to deal with the consequences of action. There’s certainly a sense that the only way men like these have of dealing with trauma is to throw themselves further into harm’s way. Unusually, at a time when product was in short supply and for a film boasting a strong cast, the picture was shelved for two years after completion. Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, 1956) directed.

The title’s a bit of a misnomer, suggesting someone is trying to escape from Ashiya when, in fact, that is just the name of the air base where the rescue team are located. Critics complained it was neither one thing nor the other, but in fact I found it a perfectly satisfactory combination of action and drama, especially as it dealt with rarely-recognised male emotions.

Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

Walk, Don’t Run (1966) ***

Stars rarely get to choose when they want to retire. Usually, the phone stops ringing, or they slide down the credits until no one can remember who they once were, or they end up in terrible international co-productions, or like Tyrone Power (Solomon and Sheba) they die on the job or, like Spencer Tracy, because of it.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, went out at the top, or near enough, after a string of box office winners, including this one, throughout the Sixties. If you are more generally familiar with Grant through Hitchcock thrillers or Charade, you might have forgotten his comedy expertise. He was a master of the double take and the startled expression – and he needs that here in what is sometimes a pretty funny farce.

The set-up is peculiar. Grant is a businessman landing in Tokyo two days before the 1964 Olympic Games with nowhere to stay and ends up sleeping on the couch of Samantha Eggar and later sharing his room with Jim Hutton, an athlete equally lacking in the forward planning department. (Excluding the Olympics, of course, the film has a similar concept to The More the Merrier, 1943).

There’s no great plot and no great need for one. Grant’s main purpose is to play Cupid to Hutton and Eggar and steer her stuffy fiancé out of their way. But it says a lot for Grant’s talent that not much plot is required. He is just so deft, whether he is playing top dog or being beaten at his own game by a rather resilient Hutton.

Eggar is Doris Day-lite, but Hutton is a revelation, not the dour dog of later The Hellfighters (1968) and The Green Berets (1968), but showing true comedic talent, especially in quick-fire verbal duels with Grant. There is only a wee bit of stereotype, overmuch bowing mainly and a Russian shot-putter, but some other Japanese customs are more interesting, yellow flags to cross the road, for example.

There are a couple of brilliant visual gags, one involving trousers, another with Grant getting locked out of the apartment, and a terrific payoff in a Japanese restaurant. Except for thrillers, Grant did not need great directors, he knew comedy inside out and here the accomplished Charles Walters (High Society, 1956) has the sense to let him get on with it.

Grant was 62 when the film appeared so quite rightly delegates romance to Hutton, which is a shame because his (non-romantic) interaction with the pernickety Eggar (she and fiance equally matched in this department) carries all the Grant romantic hallmarks. Instead, he ensures that romance between Hutton and Eggar runs its true course, which while that is satisfying enough, is a bit like removing John Wayne from the final shootout in a western. Oh, and there is a reason for the Olympic Games setting.

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