*. David Thomson is a big fan of John Wayne’s walk, saying “He moved the way singers sing, with huge confidence and daring.” It was a signature as much as his voice, and as he walks away at the end of The Searchers that’s how it’s supposed to register.
*. In our own time singer sing and dancers dance to a different beat, but you can still recognize a great walk. Brad Pitt has one. I remember first noticing this in the Ocean’s movies. When he saunters into frame here to the tune of a Japanese cover of “Stayin’ Alive” we understand the point being made, especially if we’re familiar with the English lyrics and think of John Travolta strutting down the street at the start of Saturday Night Fever. Well you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk . . .
*. I’m sure Pitt, and director David Leitch, understand all this. Pitt’s walk is an integral part of any of his performances. I don’t know if it has daring, but it has huge confidence and style. And this is a movie that trades in style. Note how impressed Channing Tatum is when he sees the stylish killer Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) stalk down the aisle of the train. What strikes him the most? Tangerine’s walk.
*. Bullet Train is also very much a movie of its moment. Leitch had previously helmed Deadpool 2, which had lots of the same sort of wisecracking superhero nonsense. And there’s more to the connection between the two movies than just the appearance of Ryan Reynolds in a cameo here playing Brad Pitt’s younger replacement. This is the kind of role Reynolds has taken over, in such films as The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard and Pitt is just a more rumpled version of the same character, with grey in his beard, a Gilligan hat, and some issues he’s trying to work through with therapy.
*. Actors like Pitt and Reynolds are so charming and cool that it’s a kind of superpower. You can’t take anything they do seriously and every action scene is a kind of comic set-piece. There’s a cultural evolution noticeable in all this in how we imagine cool. Pitt and Reynolds aren’t badasses. As violent as these movies are, they don’t even project any toughness. Their whole attitude toward shooting people and beating them up is ironic. It’s all a joke, signed off with a smile and a quip. They’re Bruce Willis’s John McClane, but better looking and more graceful.
*. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and Bullet Train is a lot of fun. Watching it, I was reminded of Leslie Halliwell’s observation, some fifty years ago, of how movies had become amusement park train rides. Halliwell was disapproving (naturally), but a rollercoaster is exactly what this is. What’s more, seeing as this is 2022 it doesn’t mind letting you know. The hitman Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) is a fan of the children’s television show Thomas the Tank Engine, which he defends by comparing it to contemporary movies: “Hey, you watch something nowadays, what is it, huh? Nothing. Its twists, violence, drama, no message. What’s the point? Huh?” You see? Everyone’s in on the joke.
*. All the usual elements are arranged well. The fast talking. The scrambled, Easter egg narrative that uses the flashiest of flashbacks to show how everything is connected. The retro-with-a-postmodern-twist soundtrack. That’s Engelbert Humperdinck, by the way, singing a revamped version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” The week I saw this movie an acquaintance had been to see Humperdinck in Toronto. I was stunned when I heard she was going, since I had seen Humperdinck in Toronto in the mid ’70s. Anyway, he’s 86 years old and still played a two-hour set. Wow.
*. Bullet Train is silly, goofy, expensive fun (Pitt was reportedly paid $20 million, nearly a quarter of the total budget). It’s twists, drama, violence . . . and despite all the blood and explosions it’s utterly harmless, especially since you know the good guys are all (or mostly all) going to be OK and the bad guys are going to be smashed or blown to pieces.
*. There’s a scene here where Tangerine faces down a train station full of gangsters by saying they look like they’re trying out for an ’80s dance-off. It’s a funny line, but the thing is this whole movie is a 2020’s dance-off. One expects a sequel given its success, and maybe Reynolds and Pitt will get to bust some moves together. Or just go for a walk.