The Bullet Train/Review
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
The first thing that sunk in after I finished watching The Bullet Train was how little of Sonny Chiba you get to see in the movie. It is a premise that could uniquely use his bear punching, skull smashing skills where he could John McClane his way into rescuing the titular train in peril. After getting over that initial disappointment though, you realize it was a pretty tight thriller that still holds up admirably well. Bullet Train came out just about a year after another 70s train-based thriller classic, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, and it also follows the wave of all the disaster movies of that era (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, etc). It also had a similarly impressive all-star Japanese movie cast for its time in the tradition of those movies. It is also a pleasant surprise to see Sonny Chiba being relatively subdued and not playing to the galleries here. He is remarkably restrained and plays second fiddle to Ken Takakura and Ken Utsui.
Having realized that there are two primary versions of the movie, it was interesting watching both versions back to back. The cut version keeps things real tight by focusing on the kidnappers and the police officials as you hardly feel a wasted moment in this version. However, the personalities and motivations of both sides are more clearly defined in the original version. Though you know that things would end up on the cutting floor as the uncut original version does not quite justify its 152 minutes runtime. You just wished they found a balance between the two as it is a textbook example of a movie having two different regional versions and both working well in their own way. If you have watched both, you will realize exactly what was missing or added and why in the other version. There is still very little of Chiba as he is almost a glorified cameo in both versions.
One of the major tropes of a good disaster movie is the reactions of the passengers. How they react when thrust into an extraordinary situation. It is something the uncut version scores majorly on as it has more character moments with a more significant focus on the passengers and their reactions. You have a man whose gut instinct is to pull the brake to get to the office on time despite knowing what will happen if the train stops (It's something that could be their instinctive reaction even if they know the consequences). While that guy is creating a stir to stop the train, somebody takes it upon himself to shoot the whole fight, exclaiming with glee that this will make an excellent film. Or with the pregnant lady who has to give birth on the train because of the delay. The conclusion to the track is heartbreaking. It's character moments like these that are sorely missing in the cut version. They are all nervous and panicking, especially not knowing the whole truth or even whether the people in charge have their plan sorted.
The thing about these 70s disaster movies and the later 80s action movies that kept Die Hard as a template is the victims always had a heroic figure to count on, though they usually seem like an everyman. You know Bruce Willis has their back, and he will fight the powers that be. Or you know Keanu Reeves is the hero who will keep the endangered people safe. What works here is even at its most tense, there seem to be no heroes but just ordinary people who are trying to get home. They are normal folks worried that a wrong decision by the higher-ups might screw things up for all involved.
The best example is despite having a martial arts/action legend like Sonny Chiba among the cast, he is just a part of the ensemble as the train operator. You also expect the movie to be a battle of wits like what happens with Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau in Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Instead, Ken Takakura as the vengeful Tetsuo Okita and Ken Utsui as Kuramochi as the train supervisor hardly interact. They also portrayed the latter as just a cog in the wheel who has to request permission from many bosses to make one decision.
No matter which version you are watching, thriller fans would find a lot to love in The Bullet Train. It is a tight thriller that holds up rather well in its place among the 70s disaster movies.