In Review: 'Bullet Train,' 'Prey,' 'Bodies Bodies Bodies'
It's open season on human beings this week, as aliens, assassins and rich kids play the most dangerous game.
Dir. David Leitch
The wave of Quentin Tarantino knock-offs that hit arthouses and the occasional multiplex after Pulp Fiction nearly all seized on a single idea: To juxtapose the comic banter of gangsters or hitmen with cooly stylized spasms of violence. Beyond the fact that Tarantino simply did those things better than his imitators, the films missed the subtler grace notes that made Pulp Fiction special, like its tweaks to genre and storytelling dynamics, its grounding in a Los Angeles where people actually live, and its genuine investment in characters who follow a moral code, despite operating on the wrong side of the law. It was novel to watch assassins talk about eating McDonald’s in Paris in one scene and then gunning down deadbeat dealers in the next, but that wasn’t close to the whole story.
In its lowest moments, Bullet Train recalls the heartless drudgery of the mid-to-late ‘90s Tarantino boom, coasting on glib one-liners and style-for-style’s-sake action sequences. Though it attempts to philosophize on family and fate, it doesn’t actually mean anything it says, much like Samuel L. Jackson’s Pulp Fiction character, who admits that quoting verses from is just “a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass.” But Bullet Train never gets to the touching part where Jackson’s Jules Winnfield actually does find meaning in Ezekiel and takes the righteous path out of Tarantino’s circular narrative. Any themes here are merely a garnish over a Las Vegas buffet of empty carbs.
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And yet, the Tarantino wannabes never had a craftsman as virtuosic as David Leitch, the former stunt performer and coordinator who conceived John Wick with Chad Stahelski and went on to direct Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and the Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw. Of those, Atomic Blonde is the only keeper, a Charlize Theron thriller with Wick-like setpieces, a novel Berlin ’89 setting, and a killer soundtrack to match. Bullet Train has more in common with Deadpool 2, which was much more robust than the original, but never dialed down its swaggering self-confidence to hit any deeper notes. At the time, that seemed like a Ryan Reynolds problem, but Leitch carries that undiluted smugness over to this film, too.
Having an easy-going movie star like Brad Pitt in the lead helps, for one thing, because he doesn’t quip as aggressively as Reynolds. Pitt plays Ladybug, a serially unlucky American assassin tasked with retrieving a briefcase on a bullet train heading from Tokyo to Kyoto. Turns out the train is booked with many others of his ilk, including “twin” brothers Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), not-so-innocent British schoolgirl Prince (Joey King), Mexican assassin The Wolf (Benito A Martinez Ocasio), Hornet (Zazie Beetz), and the deadly snake reported missing from the Tokyo Zoo. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that this murder of murderers have gathered on the Agatha Christie express, because they’re all subject to a personal vendetta much larger than the contents of a briefcase.
Working from the Japanese novel Maria Beetle, Leitch and his screenwriter, Zak Olkewicz, lean heavily on another Tarantino film, Kill Bill, in surrounding a sympathetic assassin with a coterie of colorful adversaries, including one whose calling card is a Thomas the Tank Engine sticker book. Bullet Train comes on way too strong in amplifying its quirks, but its excesses are at least partially harnessed by Leitch’s machine-tooled precision behind the camera, which gives the locales and fight sequences a distinctive pop. It’s not fatal that Leitch and company have no evident goal other than to amuse audiences with two hours of spiffy nonsense, but there’s a whiff of try-hard desperation behind the film’s bravado. Bullet Train is always working to top itself, which is a Leitch trademark. In the future, he should think more about what is being topped. — Scott Tobias
Bullet Train opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.
Dir. Dan Trachtenberg
Compared to other ’80s science fiction blockbusters, Predator kept it pretty simple. Where its contemporaries had time loops, shape-shifting aliens, dystopian futures and the like, Predator essentially pitted one type of warrior against another in the wilderness and left it at that. True, one was an ugly hunter from the stars with stealth tech and advanced weaponry, but the John McTiernan-directed film was otherwise content to keep its ambitions limited. Big men. Big guns. Scary alien. Let’s see what happens. A string of sporadically released sequels strayed from that set-up with varying degrees of success (and, in a pair of crossovers with the Alien series, no success at all). On the heels of Shane Black’s little-liked 2018 film The Predator, it makes sense that Prey, the franchise’s latest entry, would get back to basics. Or go back even further.
Directed by Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane), Prey turns back the clock and the level of technology (on the human side of the equation, at least) for a story set in the Comanche Nation in the early 18th century. It’s there that Naru (Amber Midthunder), a young would-be warrior dealing with the men of her tribe’s attempts to sideline her, comes to suspect that something is amiss in the forest near her home. She’s proven right, but never gets time to gloat, quickly finding herself part of the first line of defense against a visiting Predator looking to claim some new skulls (and another, lesser threat: some violent French trappers).
And, once again, that’s pretty much it. But Prey’s decision to keep it simple allows it to put emphasis in all the right places. The action is thrillingly (and coherently) staged, and boasts a scene of Predator v. bear combat that alone makes the film worth a look. And Midthunder has plenty of room to shape Naru into a memorable character as she realizes that all her grit and determination has been preparing her for the battle she now faces — even if it’s one she seems destined to lose. Even the series callbacks feel organic rather than winky. It all suggests that there might be something to the idea of giving even the most beleaguered franchises one chance after another. Eventually, someone gets it right. — Keith Phipps
Prey premieres on Hulu on Friday, August 5th. It’s available both in English and in a dubbed version in which the original cast speaks in Comanche.
Bodies Bodies Bodies
Dir. Halina Reijn
There’s a certain breed of young person, dating back to Friday the 13th and the slasher-movie cycle, who audiences accept as extremely killable on screen. They are not necessarily bad people (most of them are perfectly innocuous, in fact), but they seem to only exist in the present. We rarely know their pasts and can’t imagine their futures, because they’re living fully in the moment— drinking heavily, getting a little frisky, squabbling over petty slights. It’s unfortunate for them that “the moment” will culminate in violence and death, but we won’t miss them when they’re gone. They’ve only been alive for the brief time they’ve been on screen, and unless they’re a “Final Girl” type, they will presumably evaporate afterwards in the pool of blood where we leave them.
Bodies Bodies Bodies, a deliriously silly and entertaining slasher-cum-whodunit in the Scream tradition, counts on maximum killability. There are one or two characters who viewers are cued to expect might have a chance to survive, but the filmmakers do everything they can to make it seem all bets are off. Assembling a group of attractive twentysomethings—and one middleagedsomething, played by Lee Pace, who might be the most attractive of them all—the film eventually gets around to the characters playing a parlor game with a pretend killer and victims that quickly turns not-so-fake. Part of the fun is basking in the collective toxicity of buzzed-up, coked-out dipsticks who all seem capable of murder if provoked. They live fast and die young.
With its who’s-who of potential breakout stars, particularly the women, Bodies Bodies Bodies could be a Zoomer Brat Pack explosion, starting with Amandla Stenberg (The Hate U Give) and Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm) as Sophie and Bee, a college couple who are deep into the smooching phase of their relationship but don’t know everything about each other yet. A “hurricane house party” at a remote McMansion accelerates that process, but shrouds them in a paranoid and mutual suspicion that the romance–and both young women–may not survive. The host of this bacchanal is David (Pete Davidson), possibly the most reckless of them all, and they’re joined by Alice (Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott), a vapid party girl with a podcast, Alice’s much older boyfriend Greg (Pace), Sophie’s ex Jordan (Myha’la Herrold), and David’s actress girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders), who doesn’t seem happy with him.
As the hurricane pounds at the house and inevitably knocks out the power, the partygoers decide to play the title game, where one person is randomly selected as a killer, his or her victims get tapped out, and survivors occasionally vote on the identity of the culprit. (It’s a lot like the popular online game Among Us, only with fewer spaceship maintenance tasks.) When one of the seven actually gets slain for real, Bodies Bodies Bodies shifts into a comically feverish shitshow where cracks open in relationships and accusations go flying, all while more beautiful corpses pile up.
Screenwriter Sarah DeLappe, working from a story by “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, isn’t out to satirize the rich and decadent, but the rampant substance abuse, combined with the mansion setting and the hurricane outside, creates an effective pressure-cooker environment around these privileged characters. It also gives Dutch director Halina Reijn an opportunity to experiment in a hi-fi rendering of the lo-fi scare tactics of films like The Blair Witch Project, only here the panicked cast isn’t dashing through a haunted forest with a camcorder but a dark house illuminated by their cell phones. As grisly as the action gets, Bodies Bodies Bodies remains a breezy drawing room mystery, right down to a satisfying finale that’s true to the dopey ethos of the whole enterprise. The killable kids of the past have died for less. — Scott Tobias
Bodies Bodies Bodies opens in limited release on Friday. It expands to theaters everywhere on August 12th.