Bullet Train (2022)

Quick Synopsis: Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is an unlucky assassin who’s been tasked to retrieve a briefcase from a train. A train full of other nefarious people including Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry), The Wolf (Bad Bunny), The Hornet (Zazie Beetz), The Prince (Joey King), and The Father (Andrew Koji) also all want the briefcase in this fun neon insanity directed by David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2).

My expectations for this: dumb fun. I’d watch it, be slightly amused, but come out thinking I could have watched this on Netflix.

In reality, I’ve seen this film twice already now. It’s among my favourites of the year. It just works. Action films depend on the two C’s: Characters and Choreography. Characters; You can have faceless mooks be injured and killed, but if it’s a one-on-one fight scene and you don’t care about one of the characters, the stakes will seem lower. A random person being punched in the face? Meh, who cares? Clive, who we know is working this low-level job to pay for his daughter’s hospital bills, and we witness him being injured? We care, we worry about Clive and the implications of him being injured. This film nails that aspect, there are moments where characters get a long introductory montage full of motivation and background, and then only last 5 minutes before dying. Some may find this frustrating but I loved it. Not only because it added character motivation to random fights, but also meant that there was a real “anyone can die” feel to the whole thing. You watch this knowing that any character could suddenly be killed, and not dramatically or meaningfully, characters can be killed by accident in the blink of an eye.

Now, choreography. I dislike a lot of modern action films for one simple reason: you can’t actually see what’s going on. The camera moves so quickly that your brain is forever playing catchup to your eyes. The fight scenes in this are brilliant. They’re brightly lit, and choreographed SO WELL. Unless it’s purposeful misdirection, you know where everybody is at all times and can clearly see everything that’s happening. It kind of helps that everybody looks so different so even when it is just two people grappling and rolling, you can tell who is winning, there’s none of those issues you had with Morbius where it just looked like a blob of flesh whirling around. This has some of my favourite fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

It looks great, the bright colours and unique setting help create a visual feast for the eyes. It’s like a weird mix of Edgar Wright, Guy Ritchie, and Chad Stahelski. The Guy Ritchie comparisons also extend to the story and the dialogue. There are lots of F-words, lots of character introductions via flashback, and lots of deadly misunderstandings and miscommunications. If the characters were terrible, that would hurt the film. But as it is, it works. The characters are all different enough that when you get another introduction, it doesn’t hurt the film. I would watch a spin-off film based around almost any one of these characters. The script is also VERY funny, there was sustained laughter throughout the cinema when I saw it. Different types of comedy too, there’s absurdity, wordplay, physical humour etc. It runs the gauntlet of different comedic styles flawlessly, whilst also putting in many references to Thomas The Tank Engine, more than most films.

Now onto the downsides: the CGI is slightly ropey at times. Usually not distractingly so but there a few moments which just don’t look “right”. There’s a moment near the end where Brad Pitts performance feels a little off. It’s hard to explain it, but it doesn’t feel like he’s interacting with a person, feels like he’s just on his own in a room reading lines. It’s strange as 99% of the time he can be depended on for a very good performance, and in most of this he’s perfect. There’s just that one scene which is a little off. One of the characters deaths doesn’t feel very satisfying. This persons comeuppance is constantly teased throughout, and when it does happen it feels like it happens too quickly.

Overall, I highly recommend this. As I said, I’ve seen it twice already, and will definitely be getting it on DVD, I’m already considering buying the soundtrack.

The Princess (2022)

Quick Synopsis: When a strong-willed princess refuses to wed a cruel sociopath, she is kidnapped and locked in a remote tower. With her scorned, vindictive suitor intent on taking her father’s throne, the princess must protect her family and save the kingdom.

I was going to dismiss this until I saw the trailer and noticed it was far more subversive and bloody than I thought it would be. I’m glad I watched it as it’s a fun watch and a good way to spend 90 minutes.

I’m not that familiar with the work of Le-Van Kiet, who has mainly worked in Vietnamese cinema, but he did a really good job directing this and I could easily see him being the guy trusted to take on whatever action franchise replaces Fast And Furious. Truth be told, I think he’s only about two or three films away from being discussed as possible Bond director. Those films would need to be really good though as there are a few flaws in the directing here which will be more harshly criticised in a bigger film. Firstly, the CGI is really bad at some points, looking like a video game (especially the fire), and there are some moments which seem overly stylised. But mostly the stylised nature works in its favour. It provides it with a unique and fresh look akin to Kingsman (and yes, I am fully aware how weird it is to say something is unique and then immediately compare it to another film). The action set-ups are superb, there’s a lot going in them but you never feel lost, great sense of physical geography in fight scenes that make them very easy to follow.

There is still a question about whether films like this are catering to a female demographic, or pandering to them. Is it supportive or demeaning? There are arguments both ways, yes she is a strong independent female lead with no focus on romance, there are strong female side characters etc. But her clothes get torn off in fight scenes, and her character is still defined by men. I will be kind and lean towards thinking it’s catering for them. It does do it rather clumsily though. Remember that bit in Endgame where all the female superheroes suddenly appeared in the same shot and you could almost hear the “wooo, girl power, see, we support women” because of how unsubtle it was? There are moments where it’s reminiscent of that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, if it is going to do something like that I’d rather it do it with that message, not just the constant “I am strong man who is rude and sexually harasses women into relationships” themes that defined 80s and 90s action movie leads.

So yeah the message is basic, but what of the plot? Well that’s basic too. It’s very stop and start. She starts to escape, hides, starts to escape. It is clever that almost the entire thing took place in a single building, and is a lot more believable than “she escaped easily and then came back” but it would have been nice to have it feel less like a video game and more like a story. As it is, it’s just her constantly kicking ass for 90 minutes, which is fun to see but does mean that you could edit the film down to 10 minutes and not lose anything of substance. This isn’t helped by how lacking the supporting cast are. Dominic Cooper is having a great time as the antagonist, but the other characters are flatter than a pancake and just as disposable. It doesn’t help that almost all of them look slightly like a more famous actor.

In terms of performance, Joey King is……well it’s hard to tell. There are times when she’s brilliant, but then in some of the action scenes doesn’t quite have it. She’s mostly there, but there are a few moments where her movements (or the movements of her stunt double) don’t quite work, coming off a little stiff. Those are only fleeting moments though, otherwise, she’s pretty much perfect for this. Much better than she was in Wish Upon.

So in summary; there’s a lot to criticise about this film, but if that’s what you’re thinking when you watch it then that’s a bit weird (I mean, I do, but I am weird). It’s not to be analysed and pored over, it’s to watch and enjoy. It’s popcorn cinema at its best.