Sunday, August 7, 2022


Netflix’s latest big attempt at making a summer blockbuster is The Gray Man, for which they’ve recruited Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of Captain Americas 2 and 3 and Avengers 3 and 4. Those were huge financial successes, so I can see why the streamer thought their directors would be a good choice to helm an action spectacle the company hopes can compete with the usual warm-weather multiplex fare. A problem, though, is that the Russo brothers are comedy directors, and you can tell in their leaning on light quipping attitudes and a reliance on medium shots and close-ups. They started in sitcoms and never quite shook it. The best moments in Avengers: Infinity War, far and away their most enjoyable Marvel effort, are all the characters-in-a-room stuff, and the way it builds to satisfying character entrances and exits that even leave room for the audience applause the way a filmed-in-front-of-a-studio-audience series would. Their sense of spectacle is entirely farmed out to effects people pinned in by the lack of decisions—a flattening and deadening of space and place, the better to slot in their swarms of indistinguishable enemies. That means it’s better when it’s outer space or Wakanda than when they just set generic power contests on a wide open parking lot or civic center.

That their newest feature has distinguishable characters in something like real-world places serves their talents well. It’s a Spy vs. Spy setup with Ryan Gosling defecting from a covert assassin job and subsequently hunted by an unhinged rival assassin, played by Chris Evans. The Russos know they’re dealing with two marquee Movie Stars, and shoot with all due reverence. The men are shot from flattering angles, in perfect dramatic lighting, and spring into action in fluidly faked, CG-assisted prowess. And each role plays to the actors’ strengths. Gosling gets his earnest smolder, his underdog confidence. He’s been able to dial that in one direction (Drive) or another (First Man) or another (La La Land) throughout his appealing lead roles. Here he’s every bit the capital-s Star. On the other hand, Evans gets a gum-chewing character turn, cranking his Captain America gee-whiz can-do attitude into a malevolent Team America villainy. There’s some actual crackle to their antagonism. Then their world is filled out with choice supporting turns for familiar faces filling familiar roles for this genre. There are potential Deep State allies (Billy Bob Thornton and Ana de Armas), shadowy suits (Jessica Henwick and Regé-Jean Page), a girl in danger (Julia Butters), and an elder statesman with important information (Alfre Woodard). They’re all talented enough to be a little bit memorable but otherwise just exactly what they need to be to keep the shootouts and chase sequences flowing.

It’s all of a piece—a little samey, totally artificial, everyone written at the same de rigueur canted angle toward seriousness. Which is to say that it’s a blockbuster whose relationship to the world is only other blockbusters. To the Russos, and their screenwriters and craftspeople, the high-stakes shoot-‘em-up globetrotting is all about the real world and real stakes only insofar as we can glimpse them through a mirrored simulacrum—pointing backwards and through the Bourne movies and Bond pictures and so on and so forth. Sure, there’s something pleasingly frictionless about an entirely phony chase in, around, and through a train running down tight turns on cobblestone European streets. Cars flip and spin, sparks fly, bullets careen, and the leads shimmy away from rampaging computer effects. (It’s a little bit clever some of the time, too, like when Gosling uses his reflection in passing windows to guide his aim into the train.) It’s a weightless charge of motion and faux-danger.

That’s the case with all of the action scenes here. They have the form and pace of excitement, but are of mere passably diverting interest. I didn’t exactly have a bad time watching it, though. Its cliched convolutions and obvious developments, acted out by pros who could do this in their sleep, is, as the kids might say, totally smooth-brained. It slips right off the old dome painlessly and without interrupting one with anything worth thought or reflection. That’s right in the Netflix mode these days, as their plummeting stock price has resulted in the board room making noise that they want to cut back on expensive auteurist art pieces (sorry to Baumbach, Scorsese, Coens, Campion, etc.) and instead focus on these time-passing mass-market baubles. As far as their efforts there go—think Red Notice or The Adam Project—this one’s at least thoroughly fine.

A little better than fine is Bullet Train. This one’s a glossy theatrical studio picture with Brad Pitt in the lead. Now there’s a Movie Star. He knows how to hold the frame’s attention without even seeming to try. (His oft-commented upon blend of character actor charm and matinee idol good looks is one of modern movies’ great constants.) Here he’s a reluctant gun for hire who won’t even take his gun with him now that he’s taken some time off to work on himself. Wearing a bucket hat and glasses, talking almost exclusively in therapy speak—“hurt people hurt people”—he has easy, shaggy charm while cutting an odd figure for an action movie. But then again the whole movie is full of such figures. Based on a pulpy Japanese novel, the movie puts Pitt’s mercenary on a speeding bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. The mission: get on board, take a briefcase full of ransom money, and get off at the next station. If you suspect it won’t be so easy, you’d be right.

On the train are hitmen and schemers in a variety of styles and quirks. The cast is loaded with familiar faces and voices—Brian Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Joey King, Logan Lerman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Michael Shannon, Sandra Bullock, Bad Bunny, and a few fun cameos, too. Each is given a splashy title card announcing their name, a scattered assortment of quick-cut flashbacks, and one or two whimsical character details. (One is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, for example.) I’ve seen this movie’s manic post-modern approach referred to as if it was in the late-90s and early-aughts trend of snarky post-Tarantino, post-Ritchie crime pictures. But I think we should remember that that was twenty to thirty years ago, and in this case counts as a throwback. I didn’t mind that too much. The movie’s eccentricities fly by as quickly as its speeding set.

The result is a Rube Goldberg machine of an action comedy. Every actor and prop introduced circles back around at least once for another payoff, some expected and some surprising. The straight line simplicity of the main plot, one MacGuffin and one Final Destination in perpetual motion, is interrupted by a jumble of obstacles in each train car, some recurring irritants and some a constant danger. Meanwhile the story curlicues with unexpected doubling-backs—sometimes cutaways within cutaways or long montages that build backstory for a sudden reversal or reveal. This results in some enjoyable scrambling, separating or delaying effects from causes or vice versa. It’s all quite clever and pleased with itself, and the movie bounces along with the music of comedy without quite the words to make it really sing. It’s a constant juggle of witty cutting and awful violence—a kind of cold karmic comeuppance for its largely disreputable and dangerous cast of characters.

Director David Leitch has made this jocular mood for bloody combat cleverness his stock-in-trade. After co-directing the dizzying choreography of John Wick, he’s given us the likes of Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. He shoots action brightly and legibly and knows how to frame with and hold for impact. But those pictures all have a rather flippant bravado, charging hard at action while characters skip across the implications. They leave a high body count behind them while twisting out of spectacular slam-bang dangers. Any respect for human life is gone, the better to gawk at all the ways bones snap and vehicles crash. Bullet Train might be Leitch’s best post-Wick effort simply for giving in to that breezy carelessness entirely. It treats the smacks and thuds and stabs as staccato punctuation—literal punch lines—for sleazy characters ground under by twists of fate. Pitt floats above it all, desperately trying to talk it out, and inevitably pulled back into violence. That he survives any of his attackers' onslaughts is almost an accident. And all the while he keeps bemoaning his bad luck. I guess it really is all in how you look at it. As far as violent distractions go, this one at least starts at a fast pace and never lets up.

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