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Bullet Train
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by Jay Seaver

"It's like SPEED on a-- Oh, wait."
3 stars

When even the essay that accompanies the limited edition blu-ray disc of a movie repeatedly mentions that the 152-minute cut presented is really just too long, there's probably something to it - they may not need to sell anybody reading the booklet on the movie anymore, but it still seems like the writer would have to feel very strongly on the subject to repeatedly make that point to people presumably excited to have a copy of the film. He's not wrong - some releases were able to cut an hour out of "The Bullet Train" to get what I imagine is just as intense a thriller - but there's a certain appeal to its thoroughness and that at least makes an argument for keeping every scene.

The plot, at the time of the film's 1975 release, was devilishly clever: Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura) has placed a bomb on the 109 train from Tokyo to Hanaka. When the train accelerates above 80 kph (about 50 mph), the bomb will arm, and it will detonate should the train drop below that speed. Four five million dollars, he will tell the railway how to find and disarm the bomb. One accomplice (Kei Yamamoto) has rigged another train to explode as a demonstration, while another (Akira Oda) will help collect the ransom for the 1500 people on board. While the police try to hunt the bomber, it's up to Kuramochi in the control station (Ken Utsui) and engineer Aoki (Shin'ichi "Sonny" Chiba) to keep the train running long enough for a resolution.

The basic plot would serve as the (uncredited) inspiration for Speed nearly twenty years later, and it's instructive to see how Graham Yost's later script would streamline it for the better, most notably by getting the passengers down to a manageable number and actually giving them something to do; the potential body count of The Bullet Train may be enormous, but after the filmmakers introduce a number of passengers in the opening - including a celebrity and his entourage, a documentary film crew, and a captured fugitive who supplied Okita with his explosives - only to never do much with anyone but pregnant Kikuchi (Raita Ryu), who will inevitably go into labor (whether this is a direct result of someone slapping her to get her to stop panicking is not clear, but it's either the worst or most hilariously ironic use of that ugly trope). The interview with director Jun'ya Sato on the disc has him saying that he wrote the first half of the script and Ryunosuke Ono the second; perhaps Ono simply couldn't find anything to do with the subplots Sato set up and abandoned them. Instead, the film offers up a lot of generically frazzled salarymen causing a few near-riots because they can't get off the train and to their business meetings, and those moments are good and genuine-feeling, but it can be hard to get a sense of the threat's scale or a feeling of immediate danger with the action on the train so relatively unimportant.

Fortunately, what's on the ground is pretty good. Sato tells much of the story from the perspective of Okita, and Ken Takakura makes this gamble work, capturing the misguided determination of the man, how he seems generally warm and even paternal, wrestling with the choices of how to proceed in this unusual situation in a way that is nevertheless very easy to relate to. There's a nice balance to the rest of his crew, with Akira Oda capturing the loyalty of the young man he took in and Kei Yamamoto the disaffected, cynical student radical; they capture the two sides of the situation that would push the likes of Okita to commit such a crime, while Eiji Go's career criminal is the dark reflection that enables it. There are many law-enforcement and support people trying to run the group down, but it's Ken Utsui's Kuramochi who serves as the film's moral and practical center, frantically trying to figure out how to prevent disaster and present it with authority enough to make sure things happen precisely right at the other end of the phone line. It's usually Sonny Chiba at the other end of the line, playing engineer Aoki with a fine combination of authoritative experience and panic.

He doesn't stray much from the engine, if at all; for all that much of the film takes place on a train moving at up to 150 mph, it's not one for frantic action. Instead, it often revels in the methodical way that Okita has worked his plan out and executes it with care; it's the rare caper plot where all of the complex strings of actions seem well-considered, and twists seem to lead not to absurd five-steps-ahead chains but to believable fail-overs (though maybe not enough of them). That methodical nature is matched by watching the various teams of police all over Japan operate - not with frantic foot-chases, but pounding the pavement, drawing lines between clues, watching situations carefully; indeed, looked at from the eyes of an American forty years later, there's almost something subversive about how every time a cop does something even vaguely loose-cannon-like, it's a disaster.

Playing those things out - and having plentiful flashbacks for how Okita and his team arrived in a position to put hundreds of lives in danger though they don't all seem the type - is what gives the film its length, and that's a bit of a conundrum; it's something a viewer can definitely feel, but it's also what gives the film its memorable personality and ability to focus on things it does well. It hits a pretty bad lull about an hour in, for instance, but does become more engrossing later when it's able to mix a little more action in. It's wise to rely relatively little on pyrotechnics - there are a couple of good bits, but also some miniature work that looks kind of shaky.

So, the booklet doesn't lie - "The Bullet Train" kind of is too long, even if there's not a whole lot that can be detached and still have it be as effective. It's still carrying enough to be an interesting thing to check out, even beyond its role in inspiring another pretty great action flick.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=9729&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/09/18 13:42:39
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  DVD: 18-May-2004



Directed by
  Junya Sato

Written by
  Junya Sato
  Ryunosuke Ono

  Sonny Chiba
  Eiji Go
  Kinya Kitaoji
  Etsuko Shihomi
  Takashi Shimura
  Ken Takakura

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