Brad Pitt attends "Bullet Train" premiere at Le Grand Rex in Paris. (Image: Twitter)
James Moore, The Independent
Iâ€™ve been looking forward to Bullet Train because Kotaro Isakaâ€™s book of that name (from which it is adapted) is a straight-up banger, a delightfully twisted page-turner. One of its major characters is a ruthless assassin who obsessively (and knowledgeably) quotes Thomas the Tank Engine, for goodnessâ€™ sake. Thatâ€™s wonderfully warped.
When I got to Lemonâ€™s first chapter â€” Lemon is the characterâ€™s name â€” I was hooked. And thereâ€™s plenty more besides that to like about it. The problem with the film, however, is obvious even in advance of its release next week. It just looks wrong. I mean, where are the Japanese actors? In the promos and the trailers and all. Why are they in the background?
Iâ€™m not going to mention cultural appropriation here, because I fear that term is overused. Nor am I going to write a treatise on Hollywoodâ€™s still-poor treatment of Asian actors, although I could. This isnâ€™t me trying to be â€œwokeâ€ â€” a word I donâ€™t like because itâ€™s a ridiculous, overexposed term mostly used as a stick by the rightâ€™s gibbering cultural warriors. Or â€œPCâ€, its forerunner. In point of fact, the cast is actually an admirably diverse one. Which is welcome.
It replaces Isakaâ€™s Japanese team of assassins (although theyâ€™re not really a team) with an international cast. But, come on. This is a story set on a Japanese cultural icon, a bullet train â€” high-speed rail done properly, years before the UK started spaffing money up the wall for something that probably wonâ€™t be as good. That it pushes the Japanese characters into the background, at least in so far as the promotional material goes, is jarring. It just is. It looks wrong. I get Brad Pittâ€™s involvement. Itâ€™s devilishly hard to break any film that doesnâ€™t either involve superheroes or come from some other successful pre-existing property â€” like Top Gunâ€™s sequel, for example â€” right now. If youâ€™re launching something new, itâ€™s much easier if you have an A-list name with a string of nine-figure hits front and centre.
But surely the writers could have achieved that without so obviously making the Japanese characters sit in the back row? Audiences have proved very receptive to Japanâ€™s cultural exports, anime in particular. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train racked up half a billion dollars in global ticket sales for a movie that was trippy, and sometimes out-and-out strange, while still managing to retain an emotional core. And, at least in this country, it had to overcome a 15 certificate.
The wonderful Drive My Car was more of a critical (and an arthouse) hit, as opposed to a bona fide international smash, perhaps unsurprisingly given its three-hour runtime and Chekhov obsession. But a hit it was, in those terms, and it picked up Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director nods at the Oscars before carrying off the inevitable Best International Feature to add to its bulging trophy cabinet.
So donâ€™t tell me Japanese properties wonâ€™t sell to international audiences unless theyâ€™re first internationalised. They can. And do. It isnâ€™t just South Korea, with its Parasite and Squid Game, that is capable of producing global hits. Perhaps itâ€™s my long-held appreciation for Japanâ€™s rich cinematic tradition, and its other cultural exports, that makes me uncomfortable about this film â€” which is set in Japan, but seems to want to distance itself from the country at the same time.
Imagine a Robin Hood film that tries to excise Nottingham, and with only the parts of Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck reserved for British actors. Think about how that would go down with the right-wing tabloids.
You want to see how badly wrong it can go with a miscast Robin? Check out Kevin Costnerâ€™s turn in green, if you can put up with constantly hearing Brian bloody Adams singing â€œEverything I Doâ€ throughout the film. You might be better off watching it with the volume turned down, except during Alan Rickmanâ€™s scenes (he steals the movie as the Sheriff of Nottingham).