Jhere are plenty of big, silly action movies that can deliver thrills without really taxing the brain. And then there are movies that are so dumb that they sidestep guilty pleasure status and end up becoming a danger to themselves and everything around them. High-speed train falls into the latter camp. It’s so dumb, you wouldn’t trust it to cross the road unsupervised, let alone negotiate Japan’s Shinkansen high-speed rail network.
The premise, adapted from Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 novel, is simple: Brad Pitt plays a private contract agent, named Ladybug, who is hired by unknown clients to carry out various shady assignments. It could involve assassinations, but since he’s reentering murky mercenary waters after a period of soul-searching and therapy, his first comeback gig is theoretically easy. All he has to do is steal a silver briefcase from a bullet train heading to Kyoto. But Ladybug is cursed with dreadful luck. And it turns out the whole train is filled with hitmen, wildly armed with guns, swords, grudges and a selection of toxins, all of whom seem intent on stabbing each other in the face.
Among the main actors are a British duo with an almost brotherly bond: Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry). Taylor-Johnson is a sharp-suited geezer who looks so much in this brash, hollow film, as if he could have been transplanted from Matthew Vaughn’s heinous film. Kingsman series. Henry, meanwhile, is charged with the thankless role of idiot-savant. Lemon is obsessed with – I’m not kidding – the children’s book series Thomas the Chariot Engine, and claims that it provides a blueprint for reading a person’s basic traits. So a Henry is essentially decent, but a Diesel is nefarious and slippery. As expected, the cast of High-speed train skews towards the diesel end of the spectrum.
Also on board is a schoolgirl named Prince (Joey King), who could be the innocent bystander she pretends to be. But like previous action movies shot in Japan, including Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, we learned, schoolgirls are rarely trustworthy. She’s the only standout female character – it’s about something when a disposable plastic water bottle gets more story than the other women in the film.
Monumentally dumb as it is, it’s not just the crude plotting that sends this image into the dunce corner. Other equally goofy films are redeemed by their action sequences. And director David Leitch, the man behind high-octane stabats such as Atomic Blonde, certainly knows his way around a fight sequence. But the film’s gimmick – the train set – is also a problem. An inventive close-quarters battle in public transport can be a real beauty – just look at the bus sequences in Nobody and Shang Chi and the legend of the ten rings for two recent examples. But if everything the fight choreography is contained within the metal tube of a train carriage, it soon starts to get a bit repetitive no matter how many samurai swords and poisonous snakes you throw into the mix.
But there is another problem: the tone. High-speed train is exasperatingly satisfying. And the ground zero of this implosion of complacency is Pitt. There’s a school of thought that holds that Pitt is the film’s saving grace. Certainly, he is one of the nicest elements. He plays his character as an affable golden retriever who has swallowed a self-help manual, sporadically spitting out semi-chewed self-growth advice. But he is also, in many ways, guilty of this mess. Pitt’s stardom is the cargo that gave the project its momentum in the first place; his involvement is probably why no one demanded a rewrite, or at the very least a tighter edit, to apply the emergency brakes and avoid the inevitable disaster.