Review for The Bullet Train
Why do people like to complicate things? Two films with the same name come out in relatively short order. It’s been six months since the recent Brad Pitt movie Bullet Train came out on home video, and now Eureka Entertainment are releasing the Sonny Chiba movie of the same name, although this was made way back in 1975. Just make sure you know which one you want when you place an order. It reminds me of that week back in the eighties when two cover versions of Mony Mony were in the charts, one by Amazulu and one by Billy Idol. Speaking of similar things, it turns out that one of my favourite 90s action movies was inspired by The Bullet Train... to paraphrase, “Pop quiz, hotshot. There's a bomb on a train. Once the train goes 80 kilometres an hour, the bomb is armed. If it drops below 80, it blows up. What do you do?”
The Shinkansen Bullet Train is the pride of the Japanese railways, offering a jet-set lifestyle on two rails. And consequently, security is taken very seriously, with a set methodology to deal with terrorist threats that is closely adhered to. But there is a loophole that a disgruntled former businessman has discovered, and with his confederates, he is prepared to hold the Hikari 109 service to ransom. Once it leaves the station and reaches 80kmph, a bomb is armed. That’s when he makes the call. He knows that the procedure is to stop the train, evacuate the passengers and disarm any explosives. Now he tells the train company that if the train drops below a certain speed, the bomb will go off, killing all 1500 passengers on board. For a hefty ransom, he’ll tell them how to disarm the bomb. But the police are more interested in capturing the criminals than saving the train.
The Bullet Train gets a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p transfer, with PCM 2.0 Japanese mono audio and optional English subtitles. The opening logo is deceptively affected by flicker, but the film itself has had a great restoration. The image is clear and sharp, the film print seems timeless, free of print damage or signs of age, and detail levels are excellent. This does make the compositing in the windows of the train interiors even more obvious, but generally the special effects work for a 1975 movie is really quite good. The audio is fine, mono obviously but warm enough and with good balance between dialogue, action, and a surprisingly funky soundtrack. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos.
The disc boots to a static menu page which lists all of the extras and audio/subtitle options. The first run release of the film (2000 copies) will come with special packaging and a 24-page booklet with writing on the film from Barry Forshaw. On the disc you’ll find the following extras.
Audio commentary with Tom Mes & Jasper Sharp
Export Version of The Bullet Train with PCM 2.0 English mono dub (114:53)
Off the Rails: Junya Sato’s Biographers on the Making of The Bullet Train (20:12)
Tony Rayns on The Bullet Train (26:52)
Kim Newman on Mad Bombers in Cinema (16:22)
Big Movie, Big Panic [archival featurette] (24:41)
Trailer 1 (3:06)
Trailer 2 (1:30)
The Bullet Train has a mainstream sensibility to it that is very familiar, a seventies crime thriller with disaster movie aspirations, the kind of film I lapped up as a child. I was watching films like the Airport series and the like regularly, but I’m afraid it’s a genre that I have long since outgrown. All it took was a couple of parodies, like Airplane and The Big Bus, and I could never watch those films seriously again. In The Bullet Train, a hysterical pregnant woman who missed her station gets slapped so hard that she goes into labour, and not even the subsequent tragedy an hour later could stop me from chuckling. Modern films in this genre accept their heritage, and will play things tongue in cheek, have characters that are happy to quip, recognise the absurdities of their situation. The Bullet Train comes from a period where the actors are so serious, so po-faced, and play their roles so straight, that it becomes unintentionally funny. Also, at two and a half hours, The Bullet Train did outstay its welcome with me.
Having said all of that, The Bullet Train did wrong-foot my expectations. When the film starts, and you see various characters boarding the train, I thought it would conform to the tropes of its genre, and play out these characters’ soap operas in the foreground, while the film’s protagonists deal with the existential threat. In reality, the train passengers are far less significant in the film, even less so than the bus passengers in Speed, although you can definitely see how the Jan de Bont movie was inspired by this film.
However, I saw a far more unexpected parallel to another iconic 90s movie. The Bullet Train has a lot in common with Michael Mann’s Heat, itself a remake of LA Takedown. The focus of the film is really on the cat and mouse between the criminals behind the plot, and the authorities racing against time to catch them, and defuse the bomb on the train. While the Export version minimises the criminals, the original version really does develop the villains of the piece, filling in their back stories, and exploring the lives that compelled them to this heinous act. Like Heat, The Bullet Train does an effective enough job to leave the viewers ambivalent about the characters, and you might wind up rooting for the villains to actually get away with it, so sympathetically they are established. And in another parallel with Heat, the climax of the film at an airport is effectively done.
I want a time machine. I want to take The Bullet Train and show it to my seven-year-old self. He’d love all the cool technology, the suspense, the high speed trains, and the unfiltered melodrama. He would enjoy it in a way that I could not. I did find much to appreciate about The Bullet Train, but I won’t be in a hurry to watch it again anytime soon. Eureka’s presentation of the film is typically top notch, and the extra features are well worth watching.
The Bullet Train is available from Terracotta, direct from Eureka Entertainment, and the usual mainstream retailers.
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