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.

Istanbul Express (1968) ***

Calling this a by-the-numbers spy thriller does this movie no disservice since numbers are crucial to the complicated plot. On the one hand it’s quite a simple set up. Suave high-living art-dealer-cum-spy Michael London (Gene Barry) travels from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express to bid for secret papers in a secret auction. The complication: he must pick up the auction money from a bank in Istanbul using a code given to him along the way, each number by a different unknown person. On his side are train security chief Cheval (John Saxon), investigative journalist Leland McCord (Tom Simcox) and colleague Peggy (Mary Ann Mobley). Out to get him are Mila Darvos (Senta Berger) and Dr Lenz (Werner Peters).

The numbers business is an interesting addition to the usual spy picture formula of scenic location – Venice and the Eastern bloc as well as the other famous cities – violence and beautiful, sometimes deadly, women. You spend a good time guessing just how the numbers will be passed on and let me warn you it is sometime by inanimate means while the numbers themselves come with a twist. There’s also a truth serum, bomb threat, a traitor and every obstacle possible put in London’s way to prevent him completing his mission. London is about the world’s worst passenger, always missing the train as it sets off on the next leg of its journey, and requiring alternative modes of transport to catch up. But it’s as much about quick thinking as action and ends with a couple of unexpected twists. And it’s darned clever at times where the numbers are concerned.

Admittedly, the plot is a tad over-complicated but it’s fun to see London wriggle his way out of situations and for Cheval and McCord to turn up unexpectedly to provide assistance.

Gene Barry (Maroc 7, 1967) is little more than his television alter ego from Burke’s Law but he has an easy screen presence, never flustered, tough but charming and a winning way with the ladies. John Saxon (The Appaloosa, 1966) is the surprise turn, on the side of the angels rather than a villain, and equally commanding on screen, and certainly in one of his better roles. Austrian Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965) is not given as much screen time as you would like – a long way from being set up as the normal espionage femme fatale – but is certainly a convincing adversary.

This was only a movie if you saw it outside of the United States. There it was shown on television. But it had high production values for a television movie and director Richard Irving, who directed the television feature that introduced Columbo (Prescription Murder, 1968), keeps it moving at a healthy clip.  The numbers idea was probably a television device, allowing the opportunity for timed breaks in the action. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link were a class television act, creating Columbo, and prior to that the Jericho (1966-1967) and Mannix (1967-1975) television series.  

Interestingly, Senta Berger, John Saxon, Gene Barry, Levinson/Link and Richard Irving were all at various points involved in the groundbreaking U.S. television series The Name of the Game (1968-1971).

I had not realized Istanbul Express was a made-for-TV picture until I had finished watching it and in that case found it a superior piece of television and a decent-enough riff on the spy movie. You can catch it on Amazon Prime.

CATCH-UP: Senta Berger has featured in the Blog in The Secret Ways (1961), Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Necklace (1962), Major Dundee (1965), Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and The Quiller Memorandum (1966).

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