Brad Pitt stars as Ladybug, a former assassin ordered to board the train, steal a briefcase and get off. Replacing another assassin who became unavailable at the last minute, he refuses his handler’s advice to carry a gun because he just got out of anger management and has given up killing. Ladybug’s other killers are a bomb squad of murderous oddballs. Joey King is “The Prince”, posing as an innocent schoolgirl who is appalled by the cruelty of men, but immediately reveals himself to be a clever and ruthless engine of destruction. Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who is groomed to look like the evil drunk Begbie from the original “Trainspotting”) are brothers who have gone from mission to mission, racking up a body count apparently in the triple digits, and now find themselves at the train that protects the briefcase and escorts the depressed twenty-something prodigal son (Logan Lerman) of a fearsome crime boss known as the White Death.
The White Death is a Russian who took over a Yakuza family. His face doesn’t appear until the end of the story (it’s more fun for audiences to resist Googling who plays him because his casting is one of the best surprises of the whole thing). Hiroyuki Sanada is “The Elder”, a graying but still deadly assassin linked to the White Death, and Andrew Koji is “The Father” – the Elder’s son, naturally; they are out for revenge because someone pushed The Elder’s grandson off the roof of a department store and put him in a coma. They believe that the person responsible is on the train mixing with all the other agents of death.
The plot initially seems goal-directed and revolves around the comatose grandson and metal briefcase. But as the script adds new fighters to the mix and establishes that they’re all tangentially connected, “Bullet Train” morphs into a semi-necessary but sincere statement about fate, luck and karma — and Ladybug’s constant (and often humorously annoying) comments about these topics, presented in discussions through a handler (Sandra Bullock’s Maria Beetle, heard through the earphones), begin to feel like an instruction manual for hearing what the film is “really” about. (Ladybug is a sort of post-credits Jules from “Pulp Fiction” after rejecting violence, but he’s still stuck in life, made more challenging by his resolve to never pick up a gun again.)