It’s hard to upstage Brad Pitt when he’s mugging it so beautifully as a frequently stupefied hitman. Operating under the nom de guerre Ladybug, Pitt’s mercenary is prone to contemplating the Meaning of Life while attempting to filch a briefcase full of cash that doesn’t belong to him.

Pitt’s competition in Bullet Train is two-fold. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are in cracking form as the assassins Tangerine and Lemon. They call each “brothers”, but we know better.

David Leitch’s Bullet Train wants to be more than a parade of mayhem that unfolds mostly on Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen railway line. The film proudly defies the network’s impeccable reputation for safety of both vehicle and passenger.

Set on board a train dashing from Tokyo to Kyoto with a limited number of stops, the movie has top-notch action and a striking visual scheme – only to be expected from the co-director of the first John Wick film and the director of Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw. It’s in the placeholder scenes linking the point of contact between weapon and body that Bullet Train goes off the rails.

This Snatch on wheels, adapted by Zak Olkewicz from Kotara Isaka’s Japanese novel Maria Beetle, has three characters with thick British accents and plenty of chit-chat between the carnage. Apart from Tangerine and Lemon, The Prince (Joey King) is on board. She dresses like a school-girl. She behaves like anything but.

Ladybug, when not seeking the counsel of his handler Maria Beetle (Sandra Bullock), confronts a range of colourful killers during his mission. Tangerine and Lemon, who work for the gangster White Death (Michael Shannon), have the all-important briefcase until they don’t.

Brad Pitt in Bullet Train. Courtesy Columbia Pictures/Fuqua Films/87North Productions.

Also involved are characters played by Zazie Beetz and Logan Lerman as well as cameos from two Hollywood actors (one of the cameos is a doozy). There’s also a forgettable father-son Japanese pair, played by Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji. The local flavour, which includes Japanese versions of English songs and a reference to the country’s famed mascot culture, is to be taken as seriously as the depiction of safety standards on the train network.

The absurdist comedy is never as sure-footed as the absurdly gory violence. Several scenes of intended humour fall flat, such as the one in which Tangerine and Lemon spar over whether they notched 16 kills or 17, or when a fight breaks out in a silent zone.

The banter between Tangerine and Lemon ranges from forced to mediocre, which is a shame. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry are up for much more than the script can offer them (a Tangerine & Lemon spinoff won’t be out of order). Aaron Taylor-Johnson especially comes dangerously close to pipping Brad Pitt for the MVP prize.

Adept at sending himself up, Pitt is hugely enjoyable as a hired gun who spouts self-healing gibberish even as he shortens the life spans of his victims. Pitt aces the genuinely funny scenes and salvages the intermittently funny moments with his sheer screen presence.

Smooth chemistry between the actors, perfectly timed comebacks, and suitably bone-crunching action keep the 128-minute Bullet Train on track for half its ride. The other half is as forgettable as the mystery behind the assembly of assassins on a single journey.

Bullet Train (2022).