When asked why he chose to wear a skirt to the Los Angeles premiere of his latest film, Bullet Train, Brad Pitt replied, “We’re all going to die, so let’s screw it up.” Excellent point. With the geopolitical and environmental crises deepening, I’m already looking forward to the Chanel creation that Pitt will wear to the 2023 Oscars. Its comical nihilism is certainly a part of Bullet Train, which – being considered along with another new release, Bodies Bodies Bodies – suggests a well thought out tactic on the part of the film industry. As the pandemic slowly ebbs and the next calamity waits in line, we are not only confronted with multiple spasms of extreme violence, we are invited to laugh with them. Talk about screwed up.
Pitt’s role in Bullet Train is that of Ladybug, who is an assassin by trade – an honored vocation that happens to be shared by most of the other characters. We have Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), commonly referred to as the twins. We have a couple of female killers, the hornet (Zazie Beetz) and the prince (Joey King), a vision of youthful innocence in pink that cannot be trusted for a moment. We have a snake (a real snake, not an insidious human) with a bite that will make your eyes bleed. In the final act we have the White Death (Michael Shannon) whom Ladybug addresses as Mr. Death. And we have the wolf, played by Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, known to rap fans as Bad Bunny. It seems Mr. Bunny is using Bullet Train to get into acting. Maybe he wants to get back in.
Directed by David Leitch, the film has a central kick: all the homicide specialists are on a train going from Tokyo to Kyoto. While the train is super-fast, as befits the slam-bang plot, it’s also illogically slow, stretching a two- or three-hour itinerary into a nighttime ride. (To be fair, there’s a regular tension at the bus stops when the doors open for exactly one minute.) Isn’t there something old-school about this tedious rounding up of bad guys? With all the fountains of blood, aren’t we basically watching a juiced version of Murder on the Orient Express? At least Agatha Christie gave us a narrative nut to crack; dizziness is rare here. The story revolves around a briefcase full of ransom money that Ladybug is supposed to retrieve and for which his colleagues will fight him to the death. The fight is relentless, and in the hands of the resourceful ladybug, the briefcase itself becomes both a weapon and a shield.
Anyone who’s sat through, presumably under duress, the collected works of Guy Ritchie or Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) and Kingsman flicks will recognize to which disagreeable breed Bullet Train belongs. High-spirited, conceited, and apostolically eager to touch the hem of Tarantino, such films delight in beating our senses while captivating us with a conspiratorial wink. Consider Tangerine and Lemon, to whom much of Leitch’s film is dedicated. Unable to agree on whether it was sixteen or seventeen victims who cheated on them at a previous job, a flashback shows them in the midst of the carnage, accompanied by Engelbert Humperdinck on the soundtrack singing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. . (A garish title even flashes, confirming it’s Humperdinck. Thanks for that.) Likewise, Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, who carries around a page of children’s stickers; the tonal discrepancy, amusing for the first ten seconds, is then repeated endlessly.
Compare, if you can bear, another pairing: Charters and Caldicott, the English pals Hitchcock put in the train-bound drolley of The Lady Vanishes in 1938. (Two years later they were recalled by popular demand for Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich”.) A chorus of two fools, like Tangerine and Lemon, they were as mad about cricket as Lemon was about Thomas the Tank Engine. How lightly was this madness borne, and with what swift grace they saw the moral error of their ways; Remember that great scene where the dovish Charters got shot in the hand, barely flinched and immediately understood who the real enemy was and why it was necessary to join the fight. Dramatically, Hitch accomplished more with this one little bloodshed than Leitch can deliver in two hours of carnage. In truth, floating through the hubbub in a veil of undisturbed charm, Brad Pitt is the only soul to emerge from Bullet Train with any acclaim. To say it all ended in a total train wreck is both true and misleading. The wreck was there all along.
If Bullet Train hasn’t quenched your thirst for mayhem, there’s more to come in Bodies Bodies Bodies. The film was written by Sarah DeLappe from a story by Kristen Roupenian and directed by Halina Reijn. The first sounds we hear are birdsong, a breeze, and gentle kisses, followed by a declaration of love, but that’s a distracting hoax. The film is a beast thing and proud of it – a happily sadistic kerfuffle from which all traces of tenderness have been erased. The characters are horny with self-adulation at best. As one of them says, “I look like I’m fucking. And that’s the vibe I like to radiate.”
The kissers at the beginning are Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and her friend Bee (Maria Bakalova). They’ve been together for ages – how, I don’t know, weeks. Don’t waste any effort trying to find out who is seeing or saw who; Just accept that in the world of this movie, relationships last about as long as an opened carton of milk. The souring begins immediately. Being a couple doesn’t mean you’re well informed about your other half either. Sophie, for example, thinks Bee went to Utah State University and they say she’s Russian, but that’s about it. Anyway, they’re on their way to a fancy house in the country, where Bee is introduced to a group of Sophie’s friends. Happy bee.
The house party consists of Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), Alice (Rachel Sennott), Greg (Lee Pace) and David (Pete Davidson). We quickly discover that the place is owned by David’s people who have traveled. In what bad insanity, you might ask, did they leave it in his care? Aside from Jordan, the daughter of mere college professors, everyone here is cloaked in privilege and wealth. And apart from Greg, who’s older and more distant, they’re all Gen Z and have the linguistic, emotional, and technological tics to prove it. Cleverly stacked by Roupenian and DeLappe, the dialogue is a bonfire of stupidity and vanity, glowing with guilt and sudden spite: “Don’t call her a psychopath. It’s so capable.” “You’re so toxic.” “Feelings are fact.” “I have body dysmorphia!” “You hate listening to her podcast.” (This was news to me. I should be spending less time on this, Jane Austen.) We also get the wistful shrug of “You’re on coke. We’re all coked up,” which is a direct descendant of James Thurber’s cartoon caption, first printed on these pages in 1935: “Well, I’m disillusioned too. was Everyone disenchanted.” Every age is proud of its pain.
In other words, sociologically, the film packs quite a punch, both wooing and aggravating the demographics it represents on screen. He wants his cake, slices it, flashes it, rolls it out in little lines and snorts it. The irony is that such a blatant desire to capture the moment can’t help but remind you of moments past. When Reijn layers music of brutal aggression over a forest landscape, she pinches a trick used by Michael Haneke in the opening of Funny Games (1997) and again in the 2007 remake. And the plot of the new film? Brace yourself for a ridiculous hurricane to hit upon Sophie and Bee’s arrival, crippling the Dramatis Personae for the next hour or more, leaving them a) wet, b) unable to call for help, and c) in danger. All of this would have put a slow smile on the long face of The Old Dark House (1932) star Boris Karloff, who came along with a handy storm of his own.
As for the title, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is the name of a game that David and his guests are playing as the storm hits. After the draw, one person becomes an assassin, pretending to “kill” another player. with a tap on the back. The others then gather to solve the crime. Except that in this case, you’ll never guess what: someone actually dies. Then someone else. Etc. The suspense is fairly half-hearted, to be honest, and is made to seem more intense than it is by bursts of poorly choreographed panic, but there’s a real twist: in traditional crime novels you don’t care who’s croaking, but this was the first times that I’ve actively wanted every character to be wiped out, if possible in conspicuous agony. None deserve to survive. I briefly wondered: if Bee is indeed Russian, could she be part of a secret Putinist plan sent to destroy this hotbed of wealthy western decadents from the inside out? nope You can do everything by yourself. ♦