Friday, August 5, 2022


Opening this weekend:

Bullet Train--Brad Pitt plays one of several professional assassins riding the title vehicle on an overnight zip from Tokyo to Kyoto. Dubbed "Ladybug" by his dispatcher (Sandra Bullock), he's a lethal fellow with mad fighting and weapons skills, but he regards himself as a magnet for bad luck, and he's weary of his career and wants more positivity in his life.

This is Pitt in frumpy, glamor-debunking mode, decked out in a bucket hat, drab jacket and sneakers, with horn-rimmed nerd glasses. His manner is pleasant and unassuming; a central joke of the movie is that Ladybug clearly has no wish to hurt anyone. Pitt is very good company here, in the way that only a veteran movie star can be, and as a model for action movie heroes to come I heartily approve.

There are other strong actors here--Aaron Taylor-Young and Brian Tyree Henry as a team of bickering Brit killers, Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji as father-and-son assassins, Benito A Martinez Ocasio as a vengeful Mexican hit man, Zazie Beetz as a deadly concessions peddler, Joey King as a schoolgirl type with secrets, all chasing a briefcase McGuffin and trying to avoid the wrath of a shadowy Russian gangster known as "The White Death," not mention a pesky (if rather sweet-faced) boomslang snake on the loose. A few big names turn up in amusing cameos.

Yet all of this creditable work doesn't quite add up to a satisfying movie. Directed by David Leitch from a script by Zak Olkewicz adapted from a Japanese novel by Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train feels like an exercise in nostalgia; it's like one of the innumerable '90s-era knockoffs of Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez or (especially) Guy Ritchie, full of savage yet "ironic" facetious violence and whip pans and cute but bloody flashbacks and characters engaging in detailed discussions of pop culture (Thomas the Tank Engine in this case).

It's well-crafted and perfectly watchable, as long as you aren't too squeamish. But for me, it lacked any real emotional stakes, and the homestretch grows overblown and tediously overextended. Compare it to 2018's underrated Bad Times at the El Royale, another faux-Tarantino throwback that had the same tongue in cheek, but a bit of heart in its chest as well.

Now on Prime  Video:

Thirteen Lives--It's the story of a rescue mission with the number thirteen in the title, and it's directed by Ron Howard. That's a pretty solid recipe for success.

In June of 2018 twelve members of a youth soccer team and their coach went on an outing into a cave in a provincial mountain park in northern Thailand. An unexpected early monsoon hit after they went in, the paths quickly filled up with water, and the boys were trapped, more than two miles into the narrow, twisty passages. The rescue efforts that followed over the next three weeks included participants ranging from Thai Navy Seals to U.S. Military to Brit rescue divers to a Bangkok-based engineer who figured out how to divert rainwater from sinkholes on the mountain, into the agricultural fields below. The movie asserts that more than 5,000 people from 17 countries pitched in.

Howard focuses on the Brits, nicely underplayed played by Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Tom Bateman, and an Australian diver, played by Joel Edgerton, who was called in because of the specifics of his medical background. Like Howard's best film, Apollo 13, this is a fairly deep dive (sorry about that) into the technical difficulties of the operation, and this attention to detail adds to the suspense rather than dragging on the pace.

The movie's a bit of a harrowing ordeal at times, especially for those of us with a claustrophobic streak, but it's just about impossible not to invest in it emotionally. And while it's inspiring, it may also leave you a little exasperated with our seeming inability to work together for the common good when it's not such an obviously urgent crisis. What a pity it's so hard for us to remember that, in the end, all humankind is one big Thai soccer team, hoping to get out of our respective caves.

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